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Shoveling snow in 'Blizzard of 15': Protect your rotator cuff, back

If 'Blizzard '15' pounded your neck of the woods, you may be slogging out to shovel right about now. Be careful out there — all that hoisting and tossing of snow can strain lower backs, tweak rotator cuffs, and get the heart pumping.

“You certainly can aggravate old injuries,” says Dr. Jon Rittenberger, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “It tends to be more in the lower back where we see most of the injuries.”

Why do so many people hurt themselves when shoveling snow? Nobody knows what they’re doing.

Here’s the toll shoveling can take on the body and how to do it better.

Lower back

When loading the shovel with snow, people often bend at the waist and lift using their backs, not their legs. After heaving a shovel-full of snow up, they twist their upper bodies and toss away the snow. This strains the lower back.  

“[Shoveling] is not a motion you normally do,” says Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert in Charleston, South Carolina. “Even people who are real fitness buffs, I don’t think [they] do a lot of work on their lower backs.”

While lower back muscles don’t hold up in heavy situations, leg muscles do. People flex their leg muscles as they sit and stand throughout the day, making them better suited at lifting loads.

“[They are] far stronger muscles, putting strain on them is wiser,” says Rittenberger.

Few people think of snow shoveling as a work out (it can burn between 300 to 500 calories an hour), but it might benefit people to stretch before and after.  


Whoops! The heavier the shovel, the more stress on your joints. Julio Cortez / Today

“We … see folks who actually strain their arm muscle, their biceps or triceps from trying to use [their] arms to move heavy [snow],” says Rittenberger.

Again, injuries occur when people fail to rely on their leg strength.

“The heavier the shovel is the more stress for your joints,” says Carrie Schwoerer, manager of the University of Wisconsin Spine Physical Therapy. “If you are throwing it away to or three feet, [there’s] more risk on the wrist or elbow.”


“Rotator cuff injuries often happen when people try throwing the snow without using their legs and they are pitching it over their shoulders,” says Schwoerer.

The higher people hold the shovel, the more likely they are to experience shoulder injuries. When snowfall is deep, people naturally hold the shovel higher, priming them for pain.     

Tossing the snow aside at waist level will better protect the shoulders, says Schwoerer. She recommends her own strategy: she keeps the snow in front of her, squats down with the shovel, picks it up while standing up, engaging the leg muscles and turning the entire body to toss the snow.


“The upper body workout that you do [shoveling] is a harder strain on your heart than if you go walking; the cardio demands are greater,” says Rittenberger. “For those who have heart disease it is easier to have a heart attack and cardiac arrest.”

He recommends patients pace themselves, shoveling for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Heart attack symptoms seem similar to what some experience during a workout: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, more sweating, and tightness in the chest.

“It is very easy for people to say ‘yeah I am short of breath but I am shoveling snow,’” he says.

If chests pain last more than a few minutes, they should go to the hospital.


In subzero temperatures frostbite occurs in less than 30 minutes. It might seem safe shoveling snow in warmer temperatures, but that’s not always the case.  

“If it is 28 or 30 outside [frostbite] will take longer,” says Rittenberger. “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].”

He recommends that people wear layers, making sure noses, toes, and fingers are well covered and dry. Frostbite affects these appendages first. 

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Jan. 26, 201501:07