Let It Snow – Tips for Shoveling Safely

January 27, 2015 Brigham and Women's Hospital

Snow shoveling requires good technique and proper body mechanics to be performed safely.

Today’s medical information comes from Nicole Durand PT, DPT, a physical therapist working for the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Rehabilitation Department at Brigham and Women’s/Mass General Health Care Center in Foxborough, MA.

Many people have been prepping for the winter weeks ahead by making sure they have all the necessary supplies for snow and ice removal. However, whether it’s 2-3 inches or 6-10 inches of snow, we shouldn’t only be concerned about what to purchase, but also how we can protect ourselves. Snow shoveling requires good technique and proper body mechanics to be performed safely and not cause lasting harm. Improper technique can lead to low back or shoulder injuries.

There are several muscle groups at work within the back, legs, and shoulder when shoveling, and therefore, lots of room for error. Here are some helpful hints to avoid injury and to prevent any unwanted pain in the days following a storm:

1.   Hinge your hips

When bending to pick up the snow, think of your hips as a hinge. Bend and move through this joint, keeping your back flat, rather than curving your mid or lower back. You also should use your abdominals as a brace or corset to stabilize yourself every time you bend over.

2.   Lift with your legs

As you hoist the snow, use your abdominals to brace yourself, and your gluteal (buttock) muscles and your quads (thighs) to help you lift it. Remember, do not arch or lift through your lumbar spine (low back), but hinge through your hips.

3.   Chest out, shoulders back

Squeeze your shoulder blades together, avoiding a forward shoulder (slouching) position. Also, make sure your shoulders do not elevate toward your ears, but stay in a more “down-and-back” position. Avoid piling the snow too high, as you don’t want to continuously reach your arms up and over your head.

4.   Separate motions

As you toss the snow, try not to lift and twist all in one motion. Use your legs to lift the load, and then step or lunge in the direction of where you want to throw the snow. Do not turn and rotate behind you or to your side. The discs in your back do not appreciate rotation while bearing a load.

5.   Don’t overdo it

Lastly, remember that snow is heavy. Don’t try to be a hero, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you decide to go it alone, don’t lift more than you can carry or throw, even if it adds a few extra minutes or steps to your shoveling session. Your back will thank you the next day.

Think of your snow shoveling as a workout – squats, lunges, and dead lifts. This approach can give you an appreciation of how much effort it takes and the technique that goes in to doing it correctly. With that in mind, make sure you’re fit enough to get out there, stay hydrated, bundle up (but don’t overdress), rest when needed, and pace yourself.

If you wake up with low back discomfort several days after shoveling, use ice to treat it. Yes, heat feels good, but ice does the trick. While recovering, avoid staying in one position for long periods of time – try walking in short stints throughout the day – and don’t overstretch. If the pain remains, you should consult your primary care provider.

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