Don't put snow shovel away just yet; Ogdensburg rehab director offers tips to avoid back injuries, pain
Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 5:29 pm

Don’t put your snow shovel away just yet.

With the North Country forecast calling for more snow tonight, you might not be done with your shoveling duties for the week.

The low temperatures will be in the high teens tonight, according o the National Weather Service, and there is a 30 percent chance of snow, probably not amounting to more than another inch. But the diligent home or business owner will still want to clear it out of the way.

Snow shoveling is a repetitive activity that can cause muscle strain to the lower back and shoulders. Back injuries due to snow shoveling are more likely to happen to people who may not know that they are out of condition.

If you think any more snow shoveling might start shredding some of your muscles or grinding your joints, there is some advice on how to get the sidewalk cleared without hurting yourself.

Cinci Weaver, director of rehabilitation services at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center in Ogdensburg, has some snow removal tips to help you avoid low back injuries and pain:

• Pick the right shovel. An ergonomic snow shovel can help take some of the effort out of your snow removal chores. Use a shovel with a shaft that lets keep your back straight while lifting, requiring you to bend your knees only slightly and arch your back very slightly while keeping the shovel blade on the ground. Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow to prevent the low back from twisting. Lift smaller loads of snow, rather than heavy shovelfuls. This will help prevent “next-day back fatigue.”

• Warm up thoroughly. Cold tight muscles are more prone to injury than warm, flexible muscles. Do your back a favor by warming up for five to ten minutes before shoveling or any strenuous activity. Get your body moving with a brisk walk, marching in place, or another full-body activity. Then, stretch your low back and hamstrings with some gentle stretching exercises. Limber up your arms and shoulders with a body hug.

• Pace yourself. Shoveling small amounts of snow frequently is less strenuous than shoveling a large pile at once. If possible, removing snow over a period of days will lessen the strain on the back and arms. In deep snow, remove a few inches off the top at a time, rather than attempting to shovel the full depth at once.

• Take frequent breaks when shoveling. Stand up straight and walk around periodically to extend the lower back. Backward bending exercises while standing will help reverse the excessive forward bending of shoveling: stand straight and tall, place your hands toward the back of your hips, and bend backwards slightly for several seconds.

• Whenever possible, push the snow to one side rather than lifting it. When lifting the snow shovel is necessary, make sure to use lifting techniques such as always facing the object you intend to lift; bending at the hips, not the low back, and pushing the chest out, pointing forward. Then, bend your knees and lift with your leg muscles, keeping your back straight.

• Keep your loads light and do not lift an object that is too heavy for you.

• If you must lift a shovel full, grip the shovel with one hand as close to the blade as comfortably possible and the other hand on the handle.

•Avoid twisting the back to move your object to its new location, but rather pivot your whole body to face the new direction.

• Keep the heaviest part of the object close to your body at your center of gravity. Do not extend your arms to throw the snow.

• Walk to the new location to deposit the item rather than reaching or tossing.

• When gripping the shovel, keep your hands about 12 inches apart to provide greater stability and minimize the chances of injuring your low back.

Weaver also recommends keeping your feet on the ground. Slippery conditions while shoveling can lead to slipping, falling, and strains that can injure your back. Shoes or boots with good treads will help minimize injuries from slipping. Spreading sand, rock salt, or kitty litter on your sidewalk or driveway will increase traction and reduce the likelihood of slipping on the ice.

If you can, you might want to use a snow blower instead of shoveling. When used correctly, a snow blower can put less stress on your low back than shoveling. Avoid stressing your back by using the power of your legs to push the snow blower while keeping your back straight and knees bent.

Keeping these guidelines in mind can lessen the chances of developing new back problems or worsening your low back pain while shoveling.

These tips can be found at www.spine-health.com and www.apta.org.

Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center’s rehabilitation services department can be reached at (888) 908-2462.