Before you run out this winter to clear the snow from your driveway, walkway, deck or car, make sure you are prepared to remove that snow as safely as you can. Below, we review some common injury information as well as some safety considerations to help prevent a potentially serious injury.
The most common areas to injure while shoveling are the low and mid back and the shoulder/neck region. There are several ways one might sustain an injury. Staying outside shoveling for too long can lead to something we call ‘overuse’ injuries. The second, and more common injury, we lovingly call the ‘biting off more than you can chew’ injury. In short, it’s when you lift a shovel loaded with too much snow, making it heavy to safely manage. Large shovelfuls tend to be the reasons for the more severe injuries that we see in our Spectrum Orthopaedics Physical Therapy clinics. More specifically, the very heavy lifting causes strained back or neck muscles with potential herniation of the discs between the spinal segments.
Typical Recovery from Common Injuries
Recovery from the types of injuries listed above always depends on the severity. Each injury and person is different; therefore treatment plans for patients are customized based on their situation. Generally speaking, we typically treat a strained muscle for about 4 weeks. An injury such as a herniated disc or pinched nerve may require care for up to 12 weeks. The latter may also require additional treatments such as steroid injections and sometimes even surgery.
How do I prevent these injuries from occurring?
The first steps to preventing injury prior to shoveling are simple: warm up the body and wear proper gear. If the muscles we use for repetitive lifting are loose before we get out to the shovel, there is less chance for injury, since tight muscles are more likely to tear or go into spasm.
The quickest way to take care of this extra step before getting out there is to warm up the primary movers of the legs: the quadriceps (or front of your thighs), the hamstrings (or the tendons located on the back of the thigh), and the calves. You can actually use your shovel to help! Take the handle of the shovel, like a massage stick or rolling pin, and roll up and down the muscles of the upper and lower leg while sitting down to put on your boots. Make sure that you use steady pressure along the muscle. This will promote more blood flow to the muscle and tenderize the tissue to make it easier for the muscle to shorten and lengthen as you move around in the snow. A trick to keep the low back and hip muscles loose is to roll a small ball such a tennis or a lacrosse ball between the muscles and the wall. For the low back, the best muscles to target are located just over the kidney area on each side of the spine, which are located about mid-way up your back towards the outside of your body. For the hip, just try to roll that ball on the outside edge of the buttock.
Each muscle group should be addressed for at least 30 seconds. That’s a total of 5 minutes of warming up to prevent a possible 12-week stint in recovery! Well worth the time.
I’m warmed up, now what?
Now that we have woken up the muscles it is time to get to work. Start by choosing the right tool for the job. If the snow is light and fluffy, without much accumulation, use a wide shovel meant for just pushing the snow off of the surface. These special shovels are not designed for lifting and are probably easiest to use. If the snow is wet, heavy, or more than 6 inches deep, it may be better to choose a traditional snow shovel. These aren’t as wide but are deep and ideal for large amounts of moderate lifting. When using this shovel, remember to lift with the hands at your waist height. There are also shovels out there with a specialized bent handle. These ergonomic shovels help us to stand more upright while using leverage to break up and slide the snow pile toward you, making it easier to lift the weight closer to the body.
The mechanics of shoveling are always what people think of when they think of injury prevention. In short, just stick to the basics.
- ALWAYS stick to small or medium shovel loads. Never play the ‘how much can I lift game’. Several small shovelfuls may expend more energy but carry less of an injury risk than a few heavy scoops.
- Knees always unlocked and feet wide set. Keeping a low-wide base prevents you from reaching outside of your comfort zone, which is really the main cause of injury. A wider base allows you to shovel a wider radius of snow without having to move around as much. This helps to save energy when shoveling a larger area.
- Never reach outside your base when lifting. If the shovel is past your front foot when you lift, you need to move closer, expand your base, or slide the shovel closer to you. The ergonomic shovel is best for sliding that snow to just the right spot before lifting.
- Lift with proper squat form. Try to stick your hips back so your weight is placed through the heels of your boots. Bend your knees to get lower to the ground. Keep your hands wide on the shovel handle. Lastly, keep your head up or fixed on a point just a few feet in front of your shovel. The weight shift backward is to help use the muscles on both sides of each leg evenly. Avoiding staring straight down during a squat will help you to keep the correct posture for your spine.
- Make it a balanced workout whenever possible. The throwing effort should not exceed the lifting effort. Walk the shovel to the dumping area whenever necessary. Use both left handed and right handed shoveling holds and lifting/throwing techniques for equal amounts of time. *exception: If there is a pre-existing injury to one side, use the side that is uninvolved the whole time.
Keep an eye on the clock.
Shoveling will take its toll over time, just like any strenuous workout. If you are prone to injury, be sure to watch the clock. Do just what you have to if there is a large amount or if you begin to feel an injury coming along while shoveling. Regardless of how long you shovel for or how you feel after you get back inside, there should always be a short cool down period to address the muscles one more time. It can be the same 5 minutes of muscle rolling or it can be a 30 second static stretch of each muscle group. Stretching should not be painful but sustained at a medium intensity for the entire 30 seconds.
Treat every storm with the same mentality and this will eventually become a habit. The bonus effect from this practice is that these same lifting principles apply to just about every other type of lift that we encounter in life. Developing this habit will likely save you from several weeks of frustration recovering from an injury that could have been prevented.
The wintertime in Maine is beautiful, but with that beauty comes hard work and careful planning. If you find you’ve overdone it, request an appointment here or visit one of our OrthoAccess Walk-In clinics. OrthoAccess can be utilized for your minor orthopedic injuries, such as sprains, strains, and minor fractures. You can see one of our specialized providers, same day, no appointment needed. To find the closest OrthoAccess location to you, click here.
Information for blog provided by Mike Cashin, Spectrum Orthopaedics Physical Therapist.