If the local forecasts are to be believed, many of us will be doing a fair amount of snow shoveling this weekend. Before you bundle up and head out, though, Dr. Jeffery Heftler, an interventional pain specialist at Orthopedic and Neurosurgery Specialists (ONS) in Greenwich and Stamford, has a few words of advice to protect your back from strain and injury.
“The most important thing is to stay ahead of the accumulation of snow. It’s much easier on your back to shovel after every few inches has fallen than to wait and lift heavier loads of snow for a longer period of time,” he advises. Waiting can make the task even harder if the snow melts and then freezes over. Dr. Heftler also recommends investing in so called “push shovels” that are specially designed for pushing the snow aside while shovels with bent handles can help ease the tension on back and shoulders.
Without a doubt, Dr. Heftler sees more patients with back pain following a large snow storm. One reason, he suggests, is that people tend to think of shoveling snow as a nuisance and chore, when in fact it is an intense and strenuous exercise. “All too often, people who are generally inactive underestimate the physical challenge involved in clearing snow. Even someone in good shape can strain their back from the rotation of lifting the snow and throwing it over their shoulder,” he says.
To protect your back, it’s best to take a few moments to warm up your muscles before going out in the cold. When shoveling, maintain the correct posture and technique to minimize the pressure on your weaker back muscles. Avoid rounding your lower back, for instance. Instead, go through the motions with a straight back leaning forward and your knees slightly bent. Use your core, hips and hamstrings to provide strength and stability instead of relying on your back and shoulder muscles to do the heavy lifting.
People with pre-existing back conditions are most vulnerable to shoveling related injuries and should avoid the activity altogether. “Even if you have to hire someone to clear the snow for you, it will pay for itself in terms of avoiding pain and days lost from work and winter sports,” Heftler says.
If you do experience pain while shoveling, Dr. Heftler says to stop, go inside and rest in a comfortable position until the discomfort passes. He recommends anti-inflammatory medications such as Advil or Aleve, and using ice or heat directly on the area where the pain is most acute. If the pain is severe and persists through the next day, consult with a physician.