Q: How can I protect my back from injury this winter when I’m shovelling?
A: As the first snowstorm has recently arrived in the GTA, it’s time to think about how to minimize your risk of pain or injury, both of which are frequently underreported according to Statistics Canada.
Did you know that shovelling snow actually requires as much energy as running 15 kilometres an hour and that one shovelful of wet snow can weigh as much as 11 kilograms? Individuals commonly suffer shovelling injuries such as muscle fatigue, lower back pain, shoulder pain, spinal disc damage (herniation) and fractures. Heart attacks, exhaustion and hypothermia may also occur.
Tip for warming up
It is vital to stretch before, during and after shovelling. Cold muscles are more likely to strain than relaxed, warm muscles. Everyone should take the time to prepare their body for activity by stretching first. Ideally, hold each stretch for 15-20 seconds, and repeat three to six times. Don’t forget to repeat on the opposite side of your body. Areas to focus on are: your neck (right ear to right shoulder), upper body (right arm across chest, then pull gently on your elbow with your left hand), and lower back (lying on your back, pull your knees to your chest). Plus don’t forget your calf muscles, quadriceps and hamstrings!
Tips for shovelling
Before scooping up the snow, spray the shovel with a lubricant such as PAM or a silicone spray. This will prevent snow from sticking to the shovel. Avoid lifting by pushing the snow when possible. It’s always easier to face the snow you shovel. Bend your knees and throw the snow forward. This will help keep your back straight (aim for flexing less than 10 degrees). Lift with your legs, walk to where you want to dump the snow and throw forward. Avoid twisting your back or throwing snow above shoulder height. When dealing with heavy snow, always remove it layer by layer. When gripping the shovel, the hands should be a minimum of 12 inches apart. This will reduce strain by increasing leverage. Remember to avoid overloading the shovel.
Use the right shovel for you
Researchers at Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety found that one can bend forward an average of 16 percent less when using a bent-shaft snow shovel compared to a straight-shaft shovel, reducing compressive and shear forces on the spine and reducing the load on the heart. Despite this fact, individuals using bent-shaft shovels risk shoulder and wrist injuries.
Metal shovels are durable but they are heavy, especially with a load of snow. Though plastic shovels don’t last as long, they are definitely easier to use. A ‘D’ handle grip made of fibreglass is ideal for grip and comfort and will last longer. Lastly, the size of the shovel should match the shoveller. A taller, heavier individual should use a larger blade and longer shaft than a shorter, lighter person.
For individuals who like the winter outdoors, snow shovelling is a great pastime and a good aerobic workout when performed correctly. It is important to take frequent breaks. Use these breaks as an opportunity to perform some standing back extensions, and to stay hydrated. Always remember to dress warmly. Breathable layers and wind proof fabric are recommended. Cover your head, as half of all body heat loss occurs through the neck and head. Mitts will keep your fingers warmer than gloves. Warm, non-slip footwear is ideal.
If you are not in good shape or have a health problem, please contact your physician before doing strenuous activity.
Aly J. Chunara, PT, is a Senior Physiotherapist at Cleveland Clinic Canada.