Shoveling Snow and Lower Back Pain

Dear Dr. Caraotta:

I strained my back when shoveling snow, then slipped on the ice. I did not feel any pain at the time, and am not sure if the pain I have is due to the fall or shoveling snow. Is there a right and wrong way to shovel snow?

Dr. Caraotta’s Response

Almost all of us have had recent encounters with the snow shovel. This week we have seen several patients who have strained themselves when engaging in this activity. Snow shoveling is a complex activity that requires certain precautions to be followed. It is not uncommon in the mid west that those who never exercise, and wouldn’t consider lifting weights, shovel thousands of pounds of snow numerous times each winter. Shoveling snow is an aerobic and anaerobic exercise being performed at the same time. The constant motion is equivalent to walking on a treadmill, riding a bike, and lifting weights, often times performed by de-conditioned individuals.

Since snow shoveling is equivalent to a hard workout, stretching the lower back, arms, legs, hamstrings and shoulder muscles before shoveling snow is advisable. Endeavor to keep your back straight and bend your knees while scooping snow. Your knees should be shoulder width apart. Lift with your legs and not your back. It is best if you don’t twist and throw snow, if possible, Try and place the snow where you want it or throw it forward. Space your hands apart; this will give you better lifting leverage. Twisting while holding the weight of the snow can hurt your back. If you are in a tight spot, and need to throw snow, don’t load up the shovel. Remember to take breaks and catch your breath periodically.

The shovel height should ideally should be about chest high. If the shovel is too short, this will force us to excessively bend. If the shovel is too long, this causes the snow to “weigh more” and can not only hurt our back, but wrist and forearms. When buying a new shovel, look for one that has the bent staff or ergonomic type. This type of shovels prevents back strain by allowing us to bend less while shoveling. Unless it is necessary, try not to shovel in the morning. Studies show that more spinal and disc injuries occur in the morning when there is increased fluid pressure in the discs due to the body being at rest all night.

Stop shoveling immediately when feeling low back pain, and use ice. Don’t use a heating pad, this can cause more swelling. If back pain persists for more than a couple of days, it would be wise to consult with a Chiropractic Physician, since they have the most training in examining, diagnosing and treating these conditions.

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