A Winter Without Pain: Healthy Ways To Manage The Snow

By Chelsea Brooks PT, DPT

Bundle up with your heavy coat, hat, gloves and a hot cup of tea because winter is coming! Winter is a time for family, friends, and holiday cheer but can sometimes bring about a host of seasonal problems. One winter problem we can’t ignore in New York is the weather. It graciously gifts us with frigid cold temperatures, icy driving conditions, and mounds of snow. These conditions cause us to rely on little things such as salting the front steps to prevent falls or leaving yourself an extra ten minutes in the morning to defrost the car. But one thing we can all agree on is that getting rid of the mounds of snow can be a big pain, literally!

Snow shoveling in particular can be a dangerous undertaking. Due to the strenuous nature of snow shoveling as a physical activity, it can often lead to injury, hospitalization, or even death.  Snow shoveling involves forceful and exertive movements of major muscle groups that challenge both the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.  Research has shown that just two minutes of snow shoveling by sedentary males can increase heart rates enough to exceed recommendations for aerobic activity.  Combine that with freezing cold temperatures, which cause blood vessels to shrink in diameter thereby increasing the workload of the heart, snow shoveling can become quite a vigorous shock to the system.  Possible cardiovascular incidents from shoveling your lengthy driveway can be serious and potentially life threatening.  Therefore, it would be wise to seek medical attention if you start to experience any feelings of fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, chest pain, palpitations, and pain throughout the upper extremities.

Cardiovascular incidents may be the most serious and adverse response to snow shoveling, but acute musculoskeletal injuries account for more than half of snow-shovel related injuries. Do you ever wake up with soreness the next morning after a snowstorm? It’s probably in your lower back, which would be due to the shear and rotational stress on the spine after repetitive bending and lifting with your heavy snow shovel.  Not to mention this repetitive bending and lifting is often performed incorrectly.

There are a few simple things that you can do to prevent some of the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal risks that occur from shoveling this winter. Here are some recommendations to prevent injury:

A PROPER WARM UP AND COOL DOWN: Warm up with 5-10 minutes of some light activity prior to going outside to prepare your muscles for exercise. This can include exercises such as arm circles, jumping jacks, push-ups, air squats, or stair climbing. It is also important to continue to move after you are finished shoveling. A sudden cease in activity will cause heart rate and blood pressure to drop rapidly. A proper cool down ensures that the systems of the body reduce gradually.

TAKE FREQUENT BREAKS: Who said that the driveway has to be spic and span in under 30 minutes? Try shoveling your driveway frequently so that you are managing less amounts of snow at a time and reducing the stress placed on your body. Don’t forget to hydrate during you break periods!

WATCH YOUR FORM:  A tendency is for people to lift with their back. That will lead to a lot of associated low back pain. Get a little bend in the knees and keep your hips back just as if you were going to sit in a chair. Keep your back nice and flat and activate your core by drawing your belly button towards your spine. Now you are in a better position to lift! If you feel your form breaking, take a break yourself!

CHECK YOUR SHOVEL: Technology is always changing and so are snow shovels! Find an ergonomic snow shovel with an adjustable shaft that can fitted to your height. This will limit the need for excessive flexion of the trunk and therefore minimizing risk of injury.

Please consider these helpful recommendations before heading out the door this winter. There is plenty to enjoy outside such as the winter sports favored here in the Northeast. Following these simple but useful tips can ensure a safe and fun-filled season without any aches or pains.

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