How to Shovel Snow: Avoiding Low Back Pain this Winter

Keith-Austin Scarfo DO, MS

Although early in the winter season, Mother Nature has already treated us to our first snow fall in December. With the annual average snowfall of more than 30 inches in Rhode Island, and well over 70 inches in other parts of New England, one thing is certain --  there will be more snow to shovel in the months to come!

The following are a few pointers that may help you to avoid injury while shoveling this winter.

  • Warm Up.  Warm up five to ten minutes prior to shoveling as cold, tight muscles are significantly more prone to injury. Consider a brisk walk followed by stretching of the back and hamstring muscles.
  • Pick the Right Snow Shovel.  Choose a lightweight, plastic shovel to reduce the amount of weight you are lifting. An ergonomic snow shovel with a curved handle will help to minimize bending. Consider a smaller shovel to reduce the amount of snow that you can pick up at once.
  • Use Proper Technique.  If possible, push the snow to the side versus lifting it.  However, if lifting is required to move the snow use ergonomic techniques. Start by gripping the shovel with one hand close to the blade and the other on the handle.  Face the direction you intend to lift the snow.  Bend at the hips and knees, lift with your leg muscles and keep your back straight. Avoid twisting your back to move the snow.  Reduce the amount of snow you are lifting, especially if it is heavy and wet. Avoid extending your arms – don’t reach out to throw or toss the snow. Walk to the new location.
  • Pace Yourself.  Lift small amounts of snow. If the snow is deep,  remove it in layers, Shoveling smaller amounts at a time will reduce the stress on your back. Take a break every 15 minutes for several minutes to allow muscles ample rest. 
  •  If Possible, Don’t Shovel. Consider an alternative snow removal method such as a snow blower.
  • Injuries Happen!  Snow shoveling is a frequent cause of back injuries. If you experience pain while shoveling, you should stop immediately. Fortunately, most injuries tend to be musculoskeletal in nature and are self-limiting. Home therapies include rest, ice, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.  If symptoms persist you should seek initial treatment from your primary care doctor who may consider physical therapy, an X-ray, and/or muscle relaxants. For low back pain lasting greater than six weeks, a referral to a specialist is warranted.  We are happy to see you here at our Comprehensive Spine Center!

Remember snow shoveling also places significant stress on your heart.. If you experience chest pain or shortness of breath you should stop immediately, call 9-1-1 and seek urgent medical attention.

For additional instructions on snow shoveling techniques please view this video.

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