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Shovel Trouble: How to Stay Injury Free this Winter

Posted by on 17-01-2019

By: Jason Gallant, Registered Physiotherapist 

Winter has descended upon us and so has the snow.  We see many winter-related injuries around this time from slip and falls to skiing accidents.  But the vast majority we see are back injuries from snow shoveling.  Many of us can’t avoid having to trudge out into the cold to clear off the driveway, but there are some easy things you can do to make this tedious chore easier on your body.  Here are some tips to keep you injury-free while shoveling this winter.

Warm up:  it’s important to a light warm up before you start shoveling.  A few light stretches and exercises can help to warm up your muscles and counteract the effects that the sudden drop in temperature has on your body.  This will not only reduce the risk of muscle strains but will also reduce your risk of a heart attack.  

The act of shoveling causes a rapid increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and going into the cold air causes construction of blood vessels and decreased oxygen to the heart.  This can predispose you to heart attacks, especially those with existing heart conditions, high blood pressure, or a sedentary lifestyle.  These people should consult their doctor before going out to shovel.  A physiotherapist can show you an appropriate cardiovascular and strength program based on your needs to ensure that you’re ready to shovel.

Push, don’t lift

Once you’re warmed up and outside, don’t try to take big scoops of snow and lift/throw them.  Instead, try to push the snow to where you want it to go, this will put much less pressure on your back.

Bend at your Knees, NOT your Back

Bending at your back puts much more pressure on your spine, especially when you have a lot of snow at the end of a heavy shovel.  Bending at your knees allows you to keep your back in a more upright position, which unloads your spine and distributes the weight through the rest of the joints in your body.  It also allows you to keep the shovel closer to you, which reduces the compression on your back when you’re lifting and throwing the snow.

Don’t lift too much

Most of us want to get shoveling over with as fast as possible, so we can get out of the cold and on with our lives.  However, Shoveling is a very strenuous activity for your body.  Consider the fact that if you load a shovel (weighing over 1 kg) with 5 kg of snow (just about the average) every 5 seconds, you will move a load of over 70 kg in one minute, and over 1,000 kgs in 15 minutes!  Most of us aren’t used to lifting that much weight in such a short amount of time, and that can lead to injury.  Take your time and don’t do more than you can handle.  Try to shovel as soon as possible after the snowfall so the snow is lighter and easier to shovel.

Get the Right Shovel

A large, scoop-type shovel is best to push the bulk of the snow down the driveway.  If you need to lift the snow, a shovel with a smaller blade is best.  Make sure that the shaft is long enough so the handle reaches your chest to avoid having to bend over too much to grip it.  An ergonomic shaft with a bend in it is better than a straight shaft to reduce the load on your back.

If you follow these tips you should be able to survive the winter injury-free.  But what’s my best advice to avoid shoveling injuries?  Do like I did and go to Barbados to avoid it all together!


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