'Tis the season to hurt one's back while improperly shoveling snow

Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2002

AMARILLO, Texas -- Some folks look forward to snow in the winter, and others dread it like the plague.

As folks around the country are noticing, snow hits the fan at some points throughout the winter.

Part of the reason many people dread snow so much is they have to get out and shovel it -- a job only Superman could make look easy. And along with the shoveling can come back injuries, as some people discover to their dismay.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, certain things can be done by shovelers before they brave the elements to clear that path to freedom. The academy advises using proper techniques to prevent injury this winter.

"Shoveling is a rigorous aerobic activity that places great physical demands on the body," said Dr. Scott Boden, an orthopedic surgeon at the Emory Spine Center in Decatur, Ga. "Couch potatoes and those not physically fit should not shovel snow."

Chris Hale, physical therapist with Baptist St. Anthony's Hos-pital, said the shovelers who get hurt usually haven't been physically active at all.

"They need to stay in some kind of reasonable shape," he said. "The first time it snows is usually too late."

Golfers, before teeing off, regularly warm up their backs, legs, arms and shoulders to avoid injury, Boden said. "Snow shovelers should do the same."

Hale said it also is important to dress in layers instead of a T-shirt and a big heavy coat.

"That way if you get too warm," he said, "you can un-layer."

Boden offered these injury prevention guidelines:

1. Warm up your muscles for at least 10 minutes. Do some light exercises.

"Do gentle stretches," Hale said. "Do some warm-ups. If it's not too icy, walk a block or two to warm up. Do some gentle stretches, some gentle back bends. These exercises shouldn't be painful."

2. Keep the shovel close to your body, don't extend your arms with a shovel full of snow -- that puts too much weight on your spine.

Randy Clark, director of physical medicine at Northwest Texas Hospital, said a proper shovel is the key to preventing injury. He recommends shovelers buy one that is ergonomically shaped, with a bend in the handle instead of the old style with a straight handle.

Clark said it also is important is to remember to breathe when you are shoveling. "Whistle or sing," he said. "If you hold your breath, it can cause a lot of pressure on the back."

3. Push the snow in front of you if possible.

4. If you must lift the snow, bend your knees (not your back), squat and lift with your legs.

"The biggest error that most people make," Hale said, "is leaning forward with the back bent at an extreme angle for a long period of time."

5. Scoop up small amounts of snow and walk to where you will dump it. Do not toss the snow over your shoulder or to the side.

"The ligaments and disks in your back are prone to more injury when you are in a twisted position," Boden said.

"Such movement tears the outer lining of the disk, allowing the disk's soft center to bulge into the nerve. That produces extreme pain. Muscles and ligaments tighten, go into spasms and sideline the shoveler for days."

Most injuries occur because shovelers use their backs instead of their legs when shoveling.

6. To avoid falls, wear shoes that have slip-resistant soles. "Make sure you can see what you are shoveling," Boden said. "Don't let a scarf block your view."

7. Do not remove deep snow all at once. "Do it piecemeal," Boden said. Snow that stays on the ground for a while usually becomes heavier, he said. "Packed snow weighs more. Take an inch or 2 off, rest, then shovel another inch. Repeat if necessary."

Clark agreed.

"Shovel fresh snow if possible," Clark said.

"About half a shovelful at a time is plenty. Stop immediately if you develop pain (in the back). Take frequent breaks. Shovel two or three minutes and rest two or three minutes. (Snow) shoveling is considered a moderate exercise. It is equivalent to walking 4 miles an hour."

Large loads and back rotation are the main cause of injury, Hale said.

"The best way is to take smaller bites with your shovel," Hale said.

"Rotate the whole body and use the legs. Work at a steady pace. When you get tired, stand up straight. Your body will tell you when it is fatigued. The more fatigued you are, the more likely you are to be injured."

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