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Health & Exercise Forum

Don't Let Snow Shoveling Be a Pain in the Back

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Dec 17, 2012

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumI have two big strong sons who are in college in Philadelphia and miss them very much this time of year! While I love winter, I am not very fond of snow removal. Much has been written about the dangers of snow shoveling on your heart. However, while not fatal, low back pain is the most common injury sustained while shoveling snow. Heart attacks are also more common following a heavy snow.

Snow shoveling can place excessive stress on the structures of the spine. When overloaded and overstressed, these structures fail to support the spine properly. The lower back is at great risk of injury when bending forward, twisting, lifting a load, and lifting a load with a long lever. When all these factors are combined simultaneously, as in snow shoveling, the lower back is destined to fail. Low back pain from muscle strain or a herniated disc is very common following excessive snow shoveling.

Snow Shoveling As a Form of Exercise:

    • GOOD - For the Young and Healthy – studies show that snow shoveling for 15 minutes is considered moderate physical activity and extreme and vigorous physical activity when performed more than 15 minutes even for young healthy college students.
    • BAD – For the Older and Unfit – research clearly shows that there is a significant increase in heart attacks among snow shovelers. If you have any risk factors or medical condition and do not exercise regularly consult you physician.
    • Cold Weather – makes this activity even more difficult and physically stressful. Cold air makes breathing more labored and difficult and cold temps create added strain on the body.

People at High Risk of Illness Due to Snow Shoveling:

    • History of Heart Attack
    • History of Heart Disease
    • History of High Blood Pressure or High Cholesterol
    • Smokers
    • Inactive & Sedentary Lifestyle
    • Overweight
    • Elderly


    1. MEDICAL CLEARANCE: If you have any medical condition or risk factors consult you physician.
    2. PAIN: Stop immediately if you experience any pain. Especially in the chest, left arm, jaw, face, neck, or lower back.
    3. ERGONOMICS: Choose a snow shovel that is right for you:
      • An ergonomic shovel with a curved handle allows you to keep your back straighter or arched when shoveling
      • An ergonomic shovel with a shorter or adjustable handle length allows you to keep your back straighter and knees bent when shoveling. The right handle length allows you to arch your back 10 degrees with your knees slightly bent when the shovel is on the ground.
      • A plastic shovel blade is lighter than a metal one and will be better for your spine.
      • A smaller blade is better than a larger blade. It may take longer but will stress your back less.
    4. PUSH: When possible, push the snow. Do not lift it. Lifting is much more stressful on the spine.
    5. WARM – UP: Be sure your muscles are warm before you start to shovel. Cold and tight muscles are more likely to strain than warm, relaxed muscles. Wearing a compression shirt or tights (UnderArmor) can help prevent cold and tight muscles.
    6. LEVERAGE: When you grip your shovel, spread you hands at least 12 inches apart. This will improve your leverage and reduce strain on your lower back.
    7. TECHNIQUE: Shoveling technique is very important. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends:
        • Squat with your legs apart, knees bent and back straight.
        • Lift with your legs. Do not bend at the waist.
        • Scoop small amounts of snow into the shovel and walk when you want to dump it.
        • Do not hold the filled shovel with outstretched arms.
        • If snow is deep, remove in piecemeal, a few inches at a time. Rest and repeat as necessary.
        • Move your feet and do not twist your back as you shovel or dump. Never throw snow over your shoulder
    1. CAUTION: Be cautious shoveling wet snow. One full shovel can weigh 25 pounds. Shovel wet snow slowly in piecemeal.
    2. PACE YOURSELF: Take frequent breaks and stretch your back into extension and pinch your shoulder blades together.
          • Snow Blower - Use a snow blower if the above tips do not help your lower back. A snow blower will put much less stress on your lower back than shoveling snow if used correctly. For example, push the blower with your legs and keep your back straight or arched and knees bent.
          • Ergonomic Shovels
            • BackSaver 22BSL Litewate Alum Snow Shov
            • SunCast SC 3250 Snow Shov with ergon handle
            • Ergon Snow Shov with Wheels
          • Snow Melting Alternatives:
          • WarmlyYours - HeatTrak® portable snowmelting system for roofs, gutters, driveways, sidewalks, stairs and handicapped ramps uses electric mats or runners for home or office which can be customized.

Sources: The Colorado Comprehensive Spine Institute; American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons