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By Kateri Kane PT, DPT

Well folks, winter is upon us.  If you live in the northern states, winter means snow (most years).  Winter means having to get up early on those cold December mornings and shovel your driveway before you head off to work.  For many people, shoveling the driveway then means back pain for the rest of the day or week or more.  So, how do you avoid becoming one of these unfortunate people?

For starters, the curves of your spine are structured to support your body while it is upright, not hunched over or bent.  Yes, your spine is able to bend forward, backward, side to side, and rotate; but excessive amounts of these motions in any one direction for a long period of time can create back problems, especially when lifting a heavy load.  One of the most harmful motions for your back is twisting with a large weight.  Perhaps you can see, now, why shoveling causes so many problems with back pain.  The most damaging mechanics for your back are staying hunched over for a prolonged period of time while repeatedly shoveling large amounts of snow and twisting as you toss the snow you have shoveled onto a pile.  These mechanics may result in a simple back strain or something more severe like a disc herniation.

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) released some helpful tips for proper body mechanics while shoveling snow.  They are as follows:

  • Lift smaller loads of snow, rather than heavy shovelfuls. Take care to bend your knees and lift with your legs rather than with your back.
  • Use a shovel with a handle that lets you keep your back straight while lifting. A short handle will cause you to bend more to lift the load. Using a shovel that's too long makes the weight at the end heavier.
  • Because the spine cannot tolerate twisting as well as it can other movements, it is important to avoid this movement as much as possible. Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow to prevent the low back from twisting. This will help avoid the "next-day back fatigue" experienced by people who shovel snow.
  • Take frequent breaks when shoveling. Stand up straight and walk around periodically to extend the lower back.
  • Standing backward-bending exercises will help reverse the excessive forward bending that occurs while shoveling: stand straight and tall, place your hands toward the back of your hips, and bend backward slightly for several seconds.

This video provides a visual explanation of everything listed above.

Unfortunately, we can’t avoid certain circumstances of winter like snowfall on our driveways, and not everyone has a snow blower to help them avoid bending and shoveling.  Instead, many of us have to do our part to protect our backs while we dig out our cars and shovel a path toward the road.  We hope that these tips give you the information you need to avoid injuring yourself during these next few winter months.  Feel free to leave any comments or suggestions regarding snow removal or any other topic in which you are interested.  Thank you for reading and stay active.

Resources:

APTA

Move Forward PT

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Disclaimer:  The information in this medical library is intended for informational and educational purposes only and in no way should be taken to be the provision or practice of physical therapy, medical, or professional healthcare advice or services. The information should not be considered complete or exhaustive and should not be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes without first consulting with your physical therapist, physician or other healthcare provider. The owners of this website accept no responsibility for the misuse of information contained within this website.