Snow-Shoveling Safety Tips to Prevent Back Pain, Heart Problems

As winter storms sweep across the U.S. and the majority of the country is covered by snow, knowing how to shovel the white stuff safely is of utmost importance.

According to the National Weather Service, over 70 percent of the U.S. was covered by snow on Thursday. On average, coverage was 6.2 inches deep.

On Thursday, Google searches for how to stay safe while shoveling snow spiked in the U.S., as people appeared to investigate how to move snow without hurting their backs, or exacerbating heart problems.

The authors of a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine estimated there are 11,500 snow shovel-related injuries in the U.S. each year. Between 1990 to 2006, there were 195,100 such incidents.

How to prevent your back hurting after shoveling snow

Shoveling snow can injure the back because it not only involves lifting, but also twisting and throwing, according to Andrew Bang, a chiropractor at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in conditions including back pain.

Bang offered three pieces of advice for preventing harm to the lower back: "You can make sure your stance is a little wider than normal and then you can also make sure you're bending your knees quite a bit, and the last step is to actually tilt your hips forward, flattening your back."

People should avoid shoveling for prolonged periods of time, he said, instead opting to break up sessions by spending a few minutes plowing, then a similar period of time lifting and throwing.

Lifting between 10 to 15 pounds of snow at a time is recommended to prevent injury, he said.

How to protect your heart while moving snow

The authors of a 2017 study published in CMAJ found hospitalizations and deaths caused by heart attacks rose when it snowed, likely because shoveling puts stress on the heart. However, the study couldn't prove this association.

To minimize risk while shoveling, Harvard Medical School recommended warming up the muscles beforehand, moving small amounts of snow at a time, taking frequent breaks, and drinking water.

Writing for VeryWellHealth.com, Dr. Richard N. Fogoros, a retired professor of medicine and board-certified internal medicine physician and cardiologist, said those with coronary artery disease or risk factors for it—such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and smoking—should avoid moving snow.

But if you do anticipate having to shovel snow for in the future Fogoros said it is advisable to exercise often to build up tolerance in the period before. "Maintaining good cardiovascular fitness will allow you to shovel snow while producing less (though still substantial) cardiac stress."

He said: "But if you're looking at a foot of snow on your driveway right now, this advice may not apply. So pay the neighbor kid $25 to do the job today, then get into shape for next winter."

snow shovel, stock, getty
A stock image shows a person shoveling snow. The activity can put the body under stress.