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Shoveling Snow and Low Back Pain

Low back pain has become a top concern lately due to our increased time spent sitting, resulting in increased stress on the spine and reduced core strength.  This sedentary lifestyle makes our spine more vulnerable when performing other tasks such as lifting.  It becomes especially important around this time of year due to heavy snowfall.

Depending on how wet the snow is, it can get very heavy, especially when it’s sitting on the end of a long lever such as a shovel.  This can cause a lot of stress on our bodies as we attempt to clear the snow from our driveways and pathways.  However, there are many tips that can be used to make clearing the snow easier and safer, reducing the chance of injury.

As with any lifting activity, posture is essential to reducing low back stress when shoveling snow.  Bending at the hips and knees is required to reduce bending from the back.  Flexing forward with the spine requires the muscles of the back to work harder and puts significantly more pressure on the discs, which can lead to disc herniation.  To make this easier, remember to keep the knees bent, stick the buttocks back, and your chest out.  This will help keep the spine straighter and shift the work load to the strong muscles of the legs.  This helps with any sort of lifting tasks from picking up boxes to shoveling snow.  Also, as with other heavy lifting tasks, try to avoid twisting the spine.  Try throwing the snow forwards in front of you instead of rotating the spine to throw it over to the side.

There are also some points to keep in mind regarding what tools you use to clear the snow.  The further you bend over, the more difficult it becomes to maintain good posture and lifting mechanics.  To help with this, some shovels are made to include a bend to the shaft.  This allows the hand furthest on the shovel to be higher when the shovel meets the ground, so you don’t have to bend down as far to scoop up the snow.  If you have the option, go with a shovel that has a bent shaft to make it easier to lift and scoop the snow.

Other recommendations are to determine which type of shovel is best for the situation.  Shovels can be classified into either push or scoop types.  Push shovels have open sides, while scoop shovels have closed sides to prevent the snow from sliding off.  Push shovels tend to be a bit wider to allow greater area of coverage.  If the snow is light or if you can go outside several times throughout the snow fall, push shovels can save your back a lot of stress.  Push shovels allow you to stand up straighter and push with the weight of your body instead of relying on your back to lift the snow off the ground.  Scoop shovels, on the other hand, make it easier to lift the snow since they prevent the snow from sliding off the sides.  Also, since they aren’t as wide, it is easier to control the shovel when lifted off the ground.

Hopefully these tips will help to make clearing the snow a bit easier and safer.  But if you do hurt yourself while trying to shovel, or already have low back pain to begin with, please see your local physical therapist.  Not only can they help reduce your pain, but they can also help you practice good body mechanics for lifting and shoveling snow to prevent further injury.

Rob Presta is a licensed physical therapist, graduating with a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Quinnipiac University.  He has worked with patients of various diagnoses and demographics, with a focus on the outpatient orthopedic setting.  His special interests Include physical performance, strength, and conditioning.

Amity Physical Therapy was founded fifteen years ago by Michael Dow MSPT and CEO/Clinical Director.  The practice has three offices in Woodbridge, Hamden and Branford.  Rob Presta can be reached at 203-691-6248 or visit www.amitypt.com.

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