In the U.S., in 2016, more than 110,000 people went to doctors’ offices or clinics for snow-removal injuries, and as many as 28,000 went to the emergency room in 2016, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates.
“Shoveling snow puts heavy stress on the heart,” increasing blood pressure and forcing the heart to work harder, says Willie E. Lawrence Jr., M.D., chief of cardiology at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. And the cold temperatures can cause blood vessels to constrict, which boosts blood pressure as well, Lawrence explains.
In addition, shoveling can “put strain on the lower back and also on the upper back, shoulders, and elbow muscles,” says Taizoon Baxamusa, M.D., clinical assistant professor of orthopedics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Here are some tips to minimize your snow shoveling risks:
- Prepare properly. Don’t eat a big meal, which may put further stress on your heart, before shoveling. Skip the alcohol, too. It can dull your perception of the cold and the amount of strain your body is under. Before going outside, warm up with 10 minutes of light exercise, like walking. Dress warmly, with several loose layers and a water-resistant coat and boots. Wear shoes or boots with slip-resistant soles or add traction with slip-on ice cleats, available at sporting goods stores. Take your cell phone with you.
- Pace yourself and use good form. When you can push snow along the ground to get it out of the way, rather than lifting it. Instead of a large shovel, use a smaller one, whose lighter load will be easier to lift. Take frequent breaks to rest, warm yourself up inside, and rehydrate. When you lift snow, use the power in your legs instead of your back to avoid injury. Squat with your knees wide and your back straight; don’t bend at the waist. Rather than tossing snow off to the side or behind your shoulder, walk it over to where you want to dump the snow.
- Monitor yourself. Stay alert for chest pain or pressure; pain or discomfort in other parts of your upper body, such as the jaw, arms, or back; shortness of breath; or nausea or lightheadedness. These are all possible signs of a heart attack. If you notice any of them, stop shoveling and call 911 immediately. If you feel muscle pain in your back, shoulders, or arms, stop shoveling and give your muscles a rest.
- Snowblowers are helpful, but they don’t eliminate risk. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that in 2016 there were almost 18,000 doctor’s office, clinic, and emergency room visits because of injuries related to snowblowers. Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Put down salt and sand. After you’ve cleared your sidewalks and driveway, finish the job with salt to melt the ice and sand to provide traction.