By: Steve Siwy for Back1
A landscape piled high with new-fallen snow is one of the most lovely, peaceful scenes of winter. A driveway or sidewalk piled high with snow inspires less tranquility. Shoveling snow can certainly be a nuisance, and as the American Physical Therapy Association counsels, it is also a physical activity that can lead to injury. If precautions are taken, however, you can diminish your chances of having to pay for your clear sidewalk with an aching back.
The APTA advises using a shovel whose shaft is the right size to let you keep your back straight when lifting. Too short a handle, they warn, will cause you to bend too much to lift the snow. Too long, and the weight of the snow at the end of the shovel will be heavier. If you can, get a plow-shaped shovel to push the snow out of the way, rather than lifting it.
The APTA also advises waiting until the afternoon to shovel. There is increased fluid pressure in the discs of the spine in the morning, making those discs more prone to injury. Before shoveling, take some time to stretch your major muscles, including the back, legs, shoulders and arms. Especially in cold weather, it’s important to keep muscles warm and limber to avoid injury. To that end, ease strain on the back when lifting the shovel by keeping your torso upright so that you can bear the weight of the snow on your legs, rather than your back, just as with any other load. Also, try to keep shovel loads small.
When discarding a shovelful of snow, refrain from twisting your back or bending it too far forward. The spine is less able to absorb the effects of a twisting motion than other kinds of movement, so instead try to step in the direction you’re tossing the snow. According to the APTA, this will help prevent what they call the “next-day back fatigue” that people can experience after a day of shoveling. “A lot of the pain people feel is the next day, when they wake up a little stiff,” said Christie Koster of Great Plains Sports and Therapy Center in a recent North Platte (NE) Telegraph article. “Back muscles aren’t made to lift.”
While shoveling, take breaks to stand up straight and walk around to extend the lower back and alleviate some of the effects of all that forward bending. Standing extension exercises can help as well. The APTA suggests standing tall and straight, then placing your hands around near the back of your hips, and bending backward slightly, holding it for a few seconds. In addition to taking breaks, make sure to keep hydrated by drinking fluids Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol, which contribute to dehydration, before shoveling.
With care taken and attention paid to warning signs, many of the back aches and pains of shoveling (not to mention more serious results like disc herniation) can be avoided. So much the better, as you will be able to stand tall when surveying your well-cleared driveway.