Health & Wellness

Ready for the snow? How to prevent injury while shoveling

If you live on the East Coast, you're probably already prepped (or panicked!) for the powerful hurricane-like storm — known as the "bomb cyclone" — set to dump ice and snow on coastal locations from Florida to New England this week.

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Massive winter storm looms for East Coast as cold snap intensifies

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Massive winter storm looms for East Coast as cold snap intensifies

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After you've gathered extra food and supplies, it's time to begin stretching those muscles to get ready to clear out the snow. Here's what the experts want you to know about how to stay safe while shoveling snow or walking on the ice.

One set of tips in particular can help protect your back, one of the most common snow shoveling injuries.

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Heart

Pace yourself, shoveling for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

Because shoveling is an upper body workout, it's a harder strain on your heart than walking or other cardio, says Dr. Jon Rittenberger, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Be aware of heart attack warning signs: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, more sweating and tightness in the chest.

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Lower back

According to Adam Bornstein of Born Fitness, most back issues stem from one problem: poor core strength.

Fixing your form is usually a matter of one simple adjustment:

  • Don't round your lower back. Once you do, you shut off the powerful muscles that make shoveling easy and shift the stress onto small muscles that cause all of your pain.

Instead of rounding:

  • Focus on pushing your hips backward while slightly bending your knees. You want your core and abs, as well as your hips and hamstrings, to provide stability for your lower back.

Avoid twisting in unnatural positions to throw snow to the side, or even over your shoulder, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The twisting motion is dangerous for your back. If you absolutely must move the snow over, adjust your feet so they're facing the direction that the snow must go.

Pro tip: squeeze that core!

Shoulders

Do not lift the snow. Push it!

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, you should:

  • Tightly grip the shovel, while concentrating on keeping the tool close to your body as you push.
  • If you have to lift, make sure your feet are at least shoulder width apart, and bend at the knees.

Biggest mistake? Bending at the waist or back.

Toss the snow aside at waist level to better protect the shoulders. Keep the snow in front of you. Squat down with the shovel, pick it up while standing up, engaging the leg muscles and turning the entire body to toss the snow.

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Winter storm survival: What to do if you're struck or stranded

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Winter storm survival: What to do if you're struck or stranded

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Wrists

Wrist problems typically result from back issues, according to Bornstein.

Think about it — once you break the foundation, your body tries to compensate with other muscles that are smaller and shouldn't be as involved with the heavy lifting, like your wrists.

Most wrist injuries probably occur from not stabilizing your wrist before you start lifting snow that might be heavier than it appears.

  • Grip as tight as possible and have a good hold. Wear gloves, because if your hands are too cold, that will affect your grip. "Similarly, if your gloves are too bulky, your shovel is probably harder to hold," says Bornstein.

Keep in mind your wrists should not be doing the heavy lifting. If you find yourself bending or twisting your wrists in the movement, you're opening yourself up to the possibility of injury, Bornstein says.

Skin

Wear layers, making sure your nose, toes and fingers are well covered and dry. Frostbite affects these appendages first.

In subzero temperatures, frostbite occurs in less than 30 minutes. “If it is 28 or 30 degrees outside, it'll take longer,” Rittenberger said. “Once you are wet, the water helps dissipate heat from the body even faster; that is the disadvantage of being out in the cold [snow].”

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How to Avoid Frostbite

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How to Avoid Frostbite

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The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons offers more safe shoveling logistics:

Shovel at the start of snowfall, and continue frequently. Partially melted snow and heavily packed snow will be tougher to remove down the line, so try to begin shortly after fresh snow has fallen.

Use the right shovel for YOU. If it feels uncomfortable and doesn't match your height or strength, find a different one. Ergonomically designed snow shovels — a version with a curved handle — help reduce spinal stress.

Start slow. Don't exhaust yourself. Stay hydrated and take frequent breaks. It's cold out, so perspiration often goes unnoticed. Take regular water breaks.

Information from this post was compiled from Dr. Jon Rittenberger and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

This is an updated version of a story that was published in January 2016.

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