Shoveling snow is a common cause of back pain and can exacerbate an existing back condition. Using simple and appropriate snow-shoveling techniques will go a long way in preventing unnecessary pain and injury.
This article covers useful instructions, tips, and techniques on how to shovel snow in a way that protects the lower back, as well as treatment options in case a lower back injury occurs.
Prepare the Lower Back for Snow Shoveling
Clearing snow by manually shoveling is a form of aerobic exercise. Adequately preparing the body by following the basics of an exercise routine, even for physically active individuals, can help prepare the muscles for the stresses of shoveling.
Simple stretching exercises that focus on the back and the hamstrings can help loosen muscles, improve blood flow, and prepare the spine and its supporting muscles for a vigorous workout. In addition to conditioning the spine, warming up can also protect vital organs, such as the heart, from being over-stressed during the strenuous act of shoveling snow.
Lower temperatures constrict the blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the active muscles that are constantly at work during shoveling. Wearing layers of clothing that are insulating, warm, loose, and water-repelling can help keep the body warm, improving oxygen supply and blood flow. Shoes or boots with good treads will help minimize the chance of an injury from slipping.
Cold weather makes one feel less thirsty, which increases the risk of dehydration, especially with strenuous physical activity. Dehydration impairs the body’s ability to regulate heat, making the underlying tissues cold and numb. As a general rule, it is wise to adequately hydrate by drinking water or other fluids before shoveling snow and sipping fluids while taking breaks from shoveling.
Choose the Right Time of the Day to Shovel
Specific times of the day and certain weather conditions are more favorable for shoveling.
- Avoid early mornings or right after waking up from sleep. During this time, the spinal discs are hydrated to their maximum and may be at a higher risk of damage by herniation through bending or twisting movements.
- Shovel multiple times during a big snowfall to avoid shoveling deep snow
- Spread sand, rock salt, or kitty litter on the sidewalk or driveway to increase traction and reduce the likelihood of slipping on ice.
As a general rule, avoid shoveling snow after eating a heavy meal or drinking alcohol.
Use an Ergonomic Snow Shovel Designed to Push Snow
A snow shovel that allows pushing snow without having to bend at the waist helps protect the lower back tissues from sudden movements. Make sure the snow shovel is comfortable and safe to use by checking for the following attributes:
- Handgrips for a sturdy grasp
- Long shaft to match the user’s height and arm length—when the shovel blade is on the ground, the appropriate handle length would be up to the user’s elbow or chest
- Adjustable length options for the shaft to prevent bending movements
- Curved, bent, or S-shaped shafts to push the snow more effectively with less bending and twisting movements
- Lightweight shafts, which require less energy and force to use the shovel—shovels that weigh 3 lbs to 4 lbs or less are usually easier to use
- Blades made of metal and lined along the edge of the shovel to effectively scrape off snow
Certain shovels are designed with a straight shaft but have an extra handle in the middle of the shaft to rest the other hand and for maintaining a supported posture and avoiding bending movements of the spine.
Start Slow to Prevent Sudden Trauma to the Lower Back
Shoveling small amounts of snow frequently is less strenuous than shoveling a large pile at once.
- It is easier to shovel 2 inches of fresh, loose snow than 6 inches of snow that has become dense and packed.
- If an all-day snowfall is expected, clearing a few inches of snow at a time throughout the day is recommended, rather than waiting for the snow to stop and shoveling it all at once.
When shoveling, take a break every 10 to 15 minutes. Use this opportunity to drink water and stretch the arms, shoulders, and back to keep them warm and flexible.
Follow these Guidelines to Shovel Snow Without Hurting the Back
Even with an ergonomic, well-stabilized shovel, it is important to support the lower back and use appropriate posture while shoveling. A supported posture reduces stresses on the spinal muscles and joints and allows the user to shovel more snow with less fatigue and pain.
Guidelines to avoid a muscle strain or back injury while shoveling snow include the following:
- Keep the back straight at all times. Lead with the hips, not the lower back, and push the chest out, pointing forward. Then, bend the knees and lift with the leg muscles, keeping the back straight at all times. Keep the feet hip-width apart for improved control.
- Stabilize the spinal posture with appropriate hand placement. Positioning one hand on the handle and the other about 12 inches lower on the shaft allows the back to remain straight and stabilized.
- Dump snow by pivoting the entire body along the direction of the foot. If dumping snow to the left, keep the left foot facing outward (to the left) while shoveling, and dump the snow by pivoting the entire body in the direction of the foot. Avoid twisting the spine alone.
- Avoid excessive arm movement. While dumping snow, maintain minimal arm movement by keeping the shovel’s load close to the body. Doing so helps reduce exertion on the back, shoulder, and arms.
Keeping these guidelines in mind during the winter season will lessen the chances of developing new back problems or worsening any existing lower back pain while shoveling snow.