Five ways to prevent back injury while shoveling snow

As we all prepare for snowy winter weather, orthopaedic surgeon and spine expert Srinivasu Kusuma, MD, of the University of Chicago Medicine Medical Group, offers tips on how to prevent back pain and injury while shoveling snow.

1. Evaluate whether it’s safe for you to shovel

Some people should avoid shoveling altogether, Kusuma said. If you already have known back issues and aren’t used to doing exercise, if you are prone to lightheadedness or shortness of breath, consider using a snow blower to limit manual labor. If you have a known heart problem or experience a racing heart or chest pains while doing exercise, consult with your doctor about shoveling.

2. Warm up those muscles

“Make sure to warm up before you shovel, just as you would before a workout,” Kusuma said. Stretching or walking around the house are good ways to warm up your muscles. People often make the mistake of trying to shovel first thing in the morning when their muscles are tight after getting out of bed. Waiting until later in the day to shovel isn’t always feasible, so it’s important to move or stretch before going outside.

3. Wear and use appropriate winter gear

Wear proper clothing outside to keep yourself warm, including a heavy coat, pants, hat and gloves. Kusuma also suggests wearing waterproof boots that can give you better traction on slippery surfaces. Use an ergonomic shovel with a curved or adjustable handle to minimize bending, and look for a lightweight plastic blade to cut down on the weight that you’ll push.

4. Use proper technique

If possible, push the snow to the side instead of lifting it up. If you do have to lift it, fill the shovel only halfway or a quarter full to keep the load light, especially when the snow is wet. “Bend with your knees and not your back, using your powerful leg muscles instead of core muscles,” Kusuma said. Shoulders and hips should be square with the shovel, don’t twist while pushing or lifting. Hold the shovel close to your body and put one hand close to the blade. Use your whole body to turn instead of twisting at your waist.

5. Pace yourself

“Take your time. People are usually in a rush to get to work or to get out the door,” Kusuma said. “I see injuries like strains, sprains and herniated disks when people try to do too much too fast.” Take a break every 10 to 15 minutes to stretch your arms and legs. “You’re less likely to hurt if you plan ahead and take breaks so your muscles stay flexible.”

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