Winter storm Nemo will provide us with heaps of snow, which means hot cocoa, snow angels and of course – snow shoveling.
When done with proper technique, snow shoveling can be a fun way to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors. When done improperly – snow shoveling can lead to stiffness, muscle strain or worse. You are most likely to be injured when you bend forward (flexion) to lift heavy snow (compression or pressure on back) and pitching the snow twisting to the side (rotation). This combination of spinal flexion, compression and rotation is very hard on the spine and surrounding soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, etc.) and should be avoided.
Here are some tips to avoid back pain when clearing your driveway and walkways:
1. Snow shoveling = working out. Snow shoveling is an athletic endeavor and after a winter without much snow ‘Nemo’ is surely the main event. Be sure to hydrate adequately and avoid shoveling after a large meal. Once you’ve started remember to stay hydrated and take body breaks to make the shoveling experience a fun workout rather than a painful chore.
2. Warm up your muscles. Shoveling is a dynamic and physical activity so be sure to stretch all of your major muscle groups, including your hamstrings, back and shoulders. Using a ‘foam roller’ or ‘tiger tail’ to loosen tight areas is also a great way to prepare your body for cleaning up after Nemo. In addition to stretching you should walk, do yoga or another form of light exercise for 5-10 minutes to warm up the body before shoveling.
3. Whenever possible, team up. Get your friends/family involved and make shoveling a team sport. As they say, The more (shovels) the merrier - and teaming up to clear snow will allow more time for assembling snow men and building igloos.
4. Lift with your legs, not your back. Bend at your hips and knees instead of your back. As you scoop the snow you should lower into a squat position and as you toss snow your back should stay straight and your legs should provide you with strength. This is a basic yet essential tip. If you start to fatigue and notice you are losing your form it is time to take a break for a glass of water and a cup of hot soup.
5. Avoid twisting in the low back. - Keep your toes and nose aligned when pitching snow. Allowing your feet to move with your body as it rotates while pitching snow will reduce potentially harmful rotation in the spine. Alternatively, you can pitch the snow forward as long as you don’t extend your arms too far away from your body – see tip 6.
6. Don’t reach. keep your arms and shovel close to your body. Fight the urge to extend the shovel away from your body to capture more snow in each scoop. By extending your body you flex the spine and place it in a weak position. Stay strong by keep your shovel close your body.
7. Push like a plow. When possible push snow rather than scooping and pitching it to the side. Bracing the handle against your belly as you push the snow (like a plow) is a great alternative to scooping snow. This takes away much of the torque placed on the spine when you lift snow and toss it to the side.
8. Take smaller scoops. Especially when snow is wet and heavy, a full scoop with a large shovel may be too much. Try ‘half-scoops’ and only take as much snow per scoop as you are comfortable with.
9. All snow shovels are not created equal. Use a snow shovel with a curve to it (as pictured). This enables you to not have to bend as far over to reach the snow.
10. Shovel as the snow comes. Try to shovel periodically throughout the day, as the snow is falling. By doing this, you will avoid shoveling the whole storm at one time. If you do wait to the end, shovel at a comfortable pace and allow yourself as many breaks as you need.
Be safe and enjoy the winter wonderland. If you do have pain after shoveling chiropractic care and/or soft tissue therapies such as Graston® or Active Release Technique® can help you recover quickly.
Dr. Roseen is available at the Visions HealthCare Wellesley facility on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays and at the Dedham facility on Tuesdays and Fridays.