Ready or not, it’s only a matter of time before the flakes start to fall. While we’re not expecting quite as much snow as we saw last year (thank goodness!), it’s unlikely we’ll get through the winter with just a few dustings.
“Snow shoveling is a repetitive activity that can cause muscle strain to the lower back and shoulders, especially if a person is out of condition,” says American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) spokesperson Margot Miller, PT, of Cloquet, Minnesota. “Snow shoveling is also heavy work, so it’s important to pay attention to how you lift.”
Tips to Avoid Winter Back Injuries
Miller suggests the following tips for avoiding back injuries from snow shoveling:
- Lift smaller loads of snow, rather than heavy shovelfuls. Take care to bend your knees and lift with your legs rather than with your back.
- Use a shovel with a handle that lets you keep your back straight while lifting. A short handle will cause you to bend more to lift the load. Using a shovel that’s too long makes the weight at the end heavier.
- Because the spine cannot tolerate twisting as well as it can other movements, it is important to avoid this movement as much as possible. Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow to prevent the low back from twisting. This will help avoid the “next-day back fatigue” experienced by people who shovel snow.
- Take frequent breaks when shoveling. Stand up straight and walk around periodically to extend the lower back.
- Standing backward-bending exercises will help reverse the excessive forward bending that occurs while shoveling: stand straight and tall, place your hands toward the back of your hips, and bend backward slightly for several seconds.
With proper precautions and the correct snow shoveling technique, you can avoid injuries to your shoulders and lower back. Of course, it only takes one shovel-full of snow tossed with the wrong technique to trigger back pain.
If you find yourself with an aching back (whether shoveling was the culprit or not), physical therapists recommend treatment with ice for the first couple of days before switching to heat. For both hot and cold treatments, alternate on and off at 20-minute intervals to reduce pain and inflammation.
If your acute back pain isn’t significantly better in a few days, be sure to make an appointment to see a doctor.
If you or someone you know has chronic back pain, consult a licensed physical therapist. Physical therapists are highly-educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility — in many cases without expensive surgery or the side effects of prescription medications.