Physical Therapy Advice: Safe Shoveling

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Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

Winter has arrived a little earlier than expected, which means that many of us are already shoveling out. Larry Meiller finds out what injuries are most common in this season, and how to avoid them.

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  • Physical Therapist: Be Careful — Shoveling Snow Can Cause Serious Injuries

    Even though it happens every year, the first big dose of winter always comes as a bit of a surprise. The northern part of the state got hit with several inches of snow last week, and more is on the way.

    When clearing that snow away, taking steps to avoid injury is important. Physical therapist Lori Thein Brody said that a recent study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that an average of 11,500 people every year visit emergency rooms across the country as a result of snow shoveling.

    Soft-tissue injuries were the top cause of those emergency room visits, comprising about 55 percent of the total. Lower-back injuries accounted for more than one-third.

    Brody warned that not only can shoveling cause lower back injuries, “it can also exacerbate a pre-existing back problem.”

    The risk lies in the combination of the weight of the snow, the types of motions, and also the intensity and duration of the activity.

    “The loads on your back with that constant bending, and twisting, and lifting a heavy load — especially if the snow is wet — can be really hard on your back,” Brody said.

    Bill Boissonnault, a senior physical therapist at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, who works in the Spine Clinic. In his practice, he said he sees many shoveling-related shoulder injuries as well.

    “The repetition of the lifting and twisting can get people into trouble,” he said.

    Choosing the right shovel can help avoid injuries. Brody said that an ergonomic shovel would reduce the need to bend and twist, which helps the back. Handle length is also a consideration, since a longer handle can allow taller shovelers to bend less. Boissonnault added that there are also shovels available with adjustable handle lengths, which can suit shovelers of all heights and sizes.

    Brody mentioned that shovels that function more like a manual plow are also a way to avoid back injury. Such shovels are equipped with a U-shaped handle.

    “It’s a scoop, and you just walk behind it and push it. So you can stay nice and upright … and just push the snow, rather than lifting.”

    Another factor to take into account is how much snow is predicted to fall. While people may want to wait until all of the snow has fallen, Brody said that it is much healthier to go out periodically and clear the snow as it accumulates. She said that while her children always thought it was silly to shovel while it was still snowing, she would tell them, “I would rather shovel 3 inches twice than 6 inches once, especially if it’s wet.”

    Besides the risk of muscle injuries, Brody also pointed out that shoveling asks a lot of the heart as well. She shared that research shows that the first 10 minutes of shoveling is a rapid increase in demands on the cardiovascular system and raises both blood pressure and heart rate significantly.

    In fact, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine study found that over 6 percent of the shoveling-related emergency room visits were for heart attacks. Sadly, they accounted for all of the 1,647 deaths.

    To help protect the heart, Brody offered this advice:

    • Bundle up. Just being out in the cold puts a stress on the heart, so dress warmly enough that it doesn’t have to pump more blood to maintain a steady core temperature.

    • Warm up. Don’t go out and start shoveling furiously. Ease into it as you would any other cardio workout.

    • Take breaks. The goal is to clear the snow, not to set a world shoveling record. So rest frequently when out in the elements.

    • Stretch. It can help to do some stretches that are the opposite of the shoveling motions to “return your muscles back to their normal resting length,” Brody said. That means arching the back to counter bending, and stretching out the front and back of your legs to find some relief after a lot of lifting. Boissonnault added that bringing the shoulder blades towards the back will help with any strain that they are feeling.

    While snow blowers used to entail pulling on a chord to start it and pushing the machine forward, newer models have eliminated both of those opportunities for injury.

    “I understand that snowblowing is not as ‘green’ as shoveling is,” Boissonnault said. “But as soon as my kids stopped shoveling, I bought a snow blower. And then after that, we bought a condo.”

    One final bit of advice that might seem obvious, but bears mentioning: Make sure to not get too close to other shovelers. A whopping 15 percent of the injuries cataloged in the study were the result of “being struck by a snow shovel.”

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Bill Boissonnault Guest
  • Lori Thein Brody Guest

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