‘Weather Outside is Frightful,’ and Shoveling Snow is Not So Delightful

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Dr. Kevin D. Plancher, MD, MPH, with Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine offers tips to take risks out of your snow experience.

Dr. Kevin D. Plancher

Overexertion and improper lifting technique, with constant bending at the waist and lifting of arms, puts undue pressure on the lumbar spine and soft tissues surrounding it, as well as on the rotator cuff musculature of the shoulder.

That wintry landscape outside the window appears, oh, so gorgeous and peaceful – unless you must clear the white stuff from walkways and driveways. Then, the snow can quickly become a pain in the “back, shoulder, neck, wrist, knee, ankle -- just about any joint or muscle you use to remove it,” says noted orthopaedic surgeon Kevin D. Plancher, MD, MPH, who equates snow shoveling to lifting weights while trying to walk forward.

Like any strenuous exercise, shoveling – or even pushing a heavy snowblower -- can prove downright dangerous for the most critical muscle of all – the heart – especially in those who are physically out of shape; have underlying health conditions, including cardiac problems; or are age 55 or older, warns Dr. Plancher, who is a Clinical Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and Montefiore Medical Center.

Authors of a 2017 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that approximately one-third of heart attacks resulting in either death or hospital admission occurred approximately 1 day following a snowfall and were believed to be linked to shoveling. In fact, a person can exceed 75 percent of maximum heart rate while manually clearing snow and ice.

More commonly, though, shoveling injuries involve the body’s soft tissues -- sprains, strains and pulls of muscles, tendons and ligaments -- and the joints, particularly the lower back, neck and shoulder. “Overexertion and improper lifting technique, with constant bending at the waist and lifting of arms, puts undue pressure on the lumbar spine and soft tissues surrounding it, as well as on the rotator cuff musculature of the shoulder,” Dr. Plancher says.

Experts say an average shovelful of snow can weigh 20 pounds or more, depending on shovel load and the snow’s water content. “Snow shoveling is an intense, athletic activity that requires preparation, precaution, proper equipment, right technique – and common sense,” Dr. Plancher advises. “If done properly, it truly can be a beneficial exercise.” Shoveling helps burn several hundred calories per hour.

To maximize these benefits while minimizing risks, Dr. Plancher offers five important snow-shoveling tips:

Proper Preparation
Warm up muscles before going outside. Engage in stretching and movement exercises; perhaps, march in place. Do not begin shoveling right after eating because needed energy will be diverted to digestion. Dress warmly.

Precaution
Don’t rush; pace yourself. Take frequent breaks and drink plenty of water to remain hydrated.

Right Equipment
As with any sport or exercise, having the right tools and equipment reduces the chance for injury. Use a snow shovel with a length and handle appropriate to your height and grip size. Avoid old-fashioned steel shovels that only get heavier when filled with snow.

Correct Technique
Practice appropriate lifting technique. Let arms and legs do the work – not the back and spine. Keep the back straight, bend the knees and maintain a wide stance, with feet facing the snow that is being lifted. Don’t twist at the waist or lift the shovel above the shoulder to throw snow and don’t overload the shovel. Less is better. Whenever possible, push snow away rather than lifting it.

Common Sense
If the back, shoulder or other joints and muscles begin feeling stressed or become sensitive, stop shoveling!

For those who do a bit too much for a bit too long, Dr. Plancher suggests placing an ice pack on the strained muscle or joint soon after injury to limit swelling and inflammation and then, if possible, wrapping it in a compression bandage. Elevate the affected area to limit blood flow to it, and rest, rest, rest, he adds. Should breathing become difficult or chest pain develop during shoveling, get to a hospital emergency department – immediately, Dr. Plancher says. Most important is to enjoy the beautiful snowfall and avoid injury.

Kevin D. Plancher, MD, MPH, is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon. He founded Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine and serves as Clinical Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Since 2001, he has been listed annually in the Castle Connolly directory as a “top doctor” in his field.

Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine is a comprehensive orthopaedics and sports medicine practice with offices in New York City and Greenwich, CT. http://www.plancherortho.com

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