Shoveling Snow

We could be in for the first big snow of the season any day now which means you might have to dust off that snow shovel and do some work. Shoveling snow is often a common cause of low back injuries this time of year. However, low back injuries can be easily prevented when you use correct body mechanics.

Warm up your muscles

Cold muscles are more susceptible to injury, so warm up the large muscles in your lower back before heading out to shovel the snow. For example, start by placing a hot water bottle or heating pad on your lower back for 10 – 20 minutes, followed with some light aerobic exercises to get your blood moving. Then do some gentle stretching. Some people may find that putting a heat wrap on their lower back not only keeps their back muscles warmed up but also helps remind them to pay attention to ergonomics and form.

Don’t forget to stretch your hamstrings, as tight hamstrings put extra stress across your lower back. For many with lower back pain, stretching the hamstrings by bending forward to touch your toes can make your pain worse by putting extra pressure on your spinal discs. If this is the case for you, try these stretching techniques that are gentle on your lower back:

Use an ergonomic shovel

It will help if you can minimize the degree you need to bend forward to shovel, so consider using a shovel with a curved handle, which will allow you to stay in a more upright stance. An adjustable length shovel can also let you shorten the handle length, so you are not straining to lift heavy snow that’s too far away from your body. Both of these factors will help take stress off your lower back. Finally, the lighter the shovel (e.g. plastic) the less weight you will need to hoist.

Pay careful attention to how you lift the snow

Bend at your hips and with your knees, and lift with your leg muscles, not your back. Do not bend your back forward or twist your back at any point. Only lift an amount of snow that you can comfortably handle.

Avoid shoveling whenever possible

If you have lower back pain, snow shoveling is one of those activities that you should avoid whenever possible. Here are some options to get you started thinking about how to avoid shoveling this year:

  • Find a volunteer to clear your snow.Many local nonprofit organizations, such as Boy Scouts, high schools and church youth programs require teens and young adults to provide a certain number of service hours in their community. Assisting someone with back pain by shoveling their driveways and walkways will almost always count towards their required minimum of service hours, so it’s a win-win: they will be helping you by shoveling your snow and you will be helping them fulfill their service requirements.
  • Use a snow blower instead of a shovel.When used correctly, a snow blower can take much of the stress of snow removal off your back. Use the power of your legs to propel the machine forward, keeping your back straight (don’t hunch forward) and your knees slightly bent.
  • Hire a snow removal service.The easiest option may be to hire a show removal service. Most local areas have a few options for this service: landscaping and lawn maintenance companies and handymen service companies commonly offer this service. While it is expensive, protecting your back is priceless.

As a final note, slipping on the snow or ice is a serious concern, especially if you already have a bad back. Be sure to wear boots with good treads, and spread sand, rock salt, or kitty litter on your driveway and walkways to improve traction (or ask your volunteer to do this for you).