Shoveling Snow the Spine-Safe Way

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Dr. Kaliq Chang with Atlantic Spine Center explains right and wrong ways to shovel and offers tips on treatments.

Dr. Kaliq Chang

Shoveling is especially treacherous for those who are not in shape, and the combination of physical exertion and slippery surfaces can spell disaster for your spine.

When wintry weather is at hand, what comes down must go up. But the very act of shoveling the mounds of snow covering driveways and walkways poses a significant hazard to the spine, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center. Indeed, the bending and lifting required to remove snow lands many in the emergency room each year. In 2013, about 28,000 people were treated for injuries resulting from shoveling or removing ice and snow manually, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The most common injury? Back strain.

“Snow shoveling is one of the highest-intensity exercises there is, since you’re using all your major muscle groups,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “Shoveling is especially treacherous for those who are not in shape, and the combination of physical exertion and slippery surfaces can spell disaster for your spine.”

Best ways to prevent shoveling-related back pain
So how can you best prepare yourself for spine-safe snow shoveling and finish the job with back muscles intact? Dr. Chang offers these tips:

  • Warm up: Before clearing snow, do some light stretching or calisthenics to warm up your muscles.
  • Shovel, scrape, repeat: Especially if significant snowfall is expected, clear away accumulations periodically during a storm. Getting an early start helps you avoid injuries related to moving heavy, packed snow.
  • Choose the right equipment: An ergonomically correct shovel will take stress off your back muscles, and bent handles allow you to refrain from too much bending. Make sure your shovel is right for your height and strength.
  • No throwing: Don’t throw the snow over your shoulder or back – the twisting motion required stresses back muscles.
  • Lift with proper form: When possible, push the snow instead of lifting. But if you must lift, do so with your legs and not at your waist. “Try to scoop small amounts of snow and walk to where you want to dump it, rather than tossing the load,” Dr. Chang says. “Hoisting a heavy shovel full of snow, which requires outstretched arms, places too much weight on the muscles surrounding the spine.”
  • Boots count: Back injuries don’t just stem from shoveling snow, but also from slipping while doing so. Wear snow boots with chunky soles that tightly grip icy surfaces.

Treatment tips for spine injuries
If snow removal gets the best of your back despite injury-prevention efforts, a wide variety of treatments can offer pain relief or repair underlying spine damage. They include:

  • Rest: A few days of taking it easy can help injured muscles and nerve roots to heal, Dr. Chang says. “But too much inactivity is bad for the spine,” he adds. “Movement keeps muscles around the spine strong and flexible.”
  • Ice and/or heat: Applying cold or heat packs to injured areas can reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Medication: NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) available over the counter, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can reduce swelling and pain. Ask your doctor if prescription pain relief is also appropriate, Dr. Chang says.
  • Physical therapy: A physical therapy regimen lasting up to several weeks can help condition, stretch and strengthen injured back muscles.
  • Epidural steroid injections: When an MRI of the spine demonstrates a disc herniation as a likely the source of pain, this minimally invasive procedure can deliver inflammation-fighting steroids directly to the area around the spine, often greatly relieving pain.
  • Minimally invasive spine surgery: If less invasive measures have failed to relieve back pain, surgery may then be considered. Minimally invasive endoscopic procedures use tiny incisions to remove damaged spinal disc material, relieve pressure on nerve roots or accomplish other pain-zapping techniques to treat chronic back pain, Dr. Chang says.

For those with a history of back problems, Dr. Chang says it may ultimately be best to step away from the shovel, regardless of how much you may relish the crisp air and crunchy snow under your feet during the task. “You may want to think about hiring someone to shovel snow, instead of doing it yourself,” he says. “Enjoy a cup of hot cocoa as you watch your kid, your neighbor’s kid or a professional snow plow do the job.”

Atlantic Spine Center is a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with several locations in NJ and NYC.,

Kaliq Chang, MD, is an interventional pain management specialist board-certified in anesthesiology at Atlantic Spine Center.

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