The right stuff for dealing with the white stuff

When shoveling snow, use tools that are friendly to your back.

Snow can be beautiful, but we generally don’t want it to linger on our sidewalks and driveways. At the same time, removing it presents challenges, including for our hearts and backs. Heavy snowfall appears to correlate with an increase in the incidence of heart attacks and back strains. Medical science backs up, to a degree, the risk of a heart attack while shoveling snow.

People often try to clear snow shortly after waking, when their body chemicals are most prone to heart attacks. Heavy exertion from shoveling increases blood pressure, and the cold causes the body to divert blood flow from the limbs to the torso. These factors create a perfect storm of hazards for your heart.

Here’s what you can do to help reduce the risk of endangering your heart:

  • Wait at least one hour after waking before shoveling snow.
  • Ease into the activity slowly.
  • Take breaks. While it’s tempting to finish it all in one go, remember that you can’t shovel from the hospital gurney.
  • Make sure you are well hydrated. This will help cut down on clotting risks.
  • Keep yourself warm with layers of clothing, which prevent blood from leaving the limbs.

The spine, particularly the very dynamic discs between the vertebrae, is also at risk when shoveling snow. Our discs’ particular anatomy allows them to “take a set,” or deform. Within the first four hours after waking, they realign themselves, so once again, morning is against us. The pressure on the discs is lowest when we maintain the curvature of an upright spine. Unfortunately our backs tend to go to a flattened or reverse curve when we lift with a snow shovel. Twisting the spine to toss the snow introduces additional stress to the outer fibers of our discs.

Observe the following to avoid disc problems while shoveling:

  • Stretch before you shovel.
  • Push, rather than pull, the snow as much as is practical.
  • Keep the load close to your body.
  • Scoop while pretending to look up to keep the spine’s natural curve.
  • Consider using a curved-handle snow shovel that lets you load and unload snow with a reduced lift distance.
  • Face the spot where you want to throw the snow. Twisting is a bad idea when lifting.
  • Use anti-stick spray or automotive wax on the shovel to prevent heavy clumping of wet, sticky snow.

Following these tips will keep you upright as we deal with the winter white.

Brian Svazas, M.D., M.P.H.