When winter arrives with its plummeting temperatures and falling snowflakes, it’s time to break out the shovel. But shoveling snow can be more than a pesky chore—it causes thousands of injuries each year.
To prevent back injuries and stay safe when it’s time to clear snow, you should focus on fitness year-round, says Zacharia Isaac, MD, a Mass General Brigham spine care and pain management specialist. He is chief of spine care and pain management at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and associate chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Isaac recommends practicing strength and flexibility exercises, preventing inflammation in your body through nutrition, and taking simple steps to protect yourself when the flakes fall.
“These musculoskeletal setbacks happen to everybody, whether you’re an athlete and super fit, or deconditioned,” he says. “But we can do certain things to stack the odds in our favor. The best ways to prevent injuries and chronic pain is to exercise regularly and to decrease inflammation in the body by having a healthy diet and staying at a healthy weight. There are also several precautions you can take when it’s time to shovel.”
Snow shoveling can lead to several different types of injuries, including:
“The position of shoveling is awkward for the back and neck. And the load of heavy, wet, slushy snow on a long lever arm is a mechanical challenge,” Dr. Isaac says. “Mid-back pain is usually muscular because of that bending forward posture. But that is also the area where older people sometimes get compression fractures. Pain in the lower back is usually related to muscle sprains and strains, but it can sometimes indicate arthritis and degenerative changes. In addition, that bent forward position coupled with the heavy lifting can herniate discs.”
People with certain medical conditions should consult a medical professional before they shovel, he says. Examples include those with osteoporosis, a history of multiple fractures, or heart conditions.
To shovel snow safely and effectively, you need back extensor strength. Your back extensor muscles engage in many everyday activities, such as unloading the dishwasher, picking things up off the floor, and bending over a sink. “But we live in a society that doesn’t condition the back extensors,” Dr. Isaac says. “Many people sit too often, and we tend to slouch into the desk chair or driver’s seat. Try to establish healthy habits and regular movements to build strength in your back and core.”
The best exercises to condition your body for snow shoveling are squats and deadlifts, he adds. These very functional movements also make us better able to get out of a chair as we get older. Hip flexibility is also very important to back strength. “Whatever tightness you have in your hips, transmits to your back. So making sure that you have mobile, flexible hips is also important.”
A personal trainer, physical therapist, or online video can teach you proper form. There are also effective modifications of these exercises for people who need them.
Getting proper nutrition throughout the year and staying at a healthy weight can also help prevent back pain, Dr. Isaac says. People with an elevated body mass index (BMI) tend to have multiple areas of joint pain. It can cause inflammation throughout your body, not just in weight-bearing joints like your knees. Dr. Isaac emphasizes that different diet and nutrition approaches work for different people.
“To lose weight, you have to find something that’s sustainable in the long term rather than something that’s a crash diet. You can try eating foods that are more plant-based or trying windows of fasting to improve insulin resistance,” he says. “To control systemic inflammation, many people find benefit in eliminating certain things. For example, some people eliminate gluten, and suddenly their joints feel less inflamed. Some people who eliminate sugar or processed carbohydrates feel less inflamed.”
When it’s time to shovel, use the following strategies to protect your back:
Slips and falls are also very common during snow shoveling and can cause back and other injuries. To prevent these types of accidents:
If you tweak or injure your back while shoveling, Dr. Isaac recommends that you:
Most sprains and strains from shoveling heal on their own. But if pain lasts longer than 4 to 6 weeks or comes back frequently, talk to a health care professional. Seek medical attention if a shoveling injury is associated with numbness, tingling, weakness, clumsiness, or balance issues. You should also seek medical attention if the injury happened during a fall or other trauma.
Your health care team can help you feel better and prevent future injury. Options may include medications and physical therapy to heal and strengthen your back.