Shovels Ready, Set, Snow
Each year 11,500 people are hospitalized due to shovel-related injuries. Read on to discover what the risks are, and how to shovel without ruining your back.
As we face the New Year, we've already braced for our first major winter storm earlier this week. As the snow started to fall on Sunday morning, I did what many of us New Englanders do before busting out the shovel--research.
I performed a complete literature review of the most current recommendations on proper shoveling techniques and how to avoid snow-related injuries. For those of you who have yet to develop your own shoveling safety techniques, please feel free to read on. For those of you who have been shoveling for decades, read on as well. The information I've dug up seems to provide a window into the slushy territory of proper shoveling safety.
Let me begin by describing the latest statistics on shoveling related injury. Have you ever been injured by your own shovel, or by a shoveler you love? It's a lot more common than you think. Researchers from The Ohio State University College of Medicine analyzed country-wide electronic medical records that documented the snow shovel–related injuries and medical emergencies treated in US emergency departments (EDs) from 1990 to 2006. In those 16 years, almost 200,000 Americans have been hospitalized due to their snow-shoveling injuries. Ouch! The study noted that males experienced two-thirds of the injuries, which could be explained because they either do more of the shoveling or take more "risks" shoveling. Adults aged 18-54 experienced the majority of injuries, with kids and adults over age 55 tying for second place.
Each age group was more susceptible to different shoveling-related injuries. For example, the research suggests that children are almost 15 times more likely than adults to be injured because of being struck by a snow shovel. Clearly, this is a reminder that we adults must be careful of our little "helpers" who are "shovel-height" and often out of sight as we doggedly shovel away. When a short-statured child attempts to shovel snow, the end of the shovel shaft lines up with the child's head, making a head injury more likely. Two thirds of snow shovel–related injuries to children in this study were in the head region, and often involved lacerating injuries.
Adults' injuries are more likely to be self-inflicted. Soft-tissue damage, especially to the lower back, was the most frequent case of hospitalizations for adult snow-shovelers age 18-54. Older adults, especially males, experienced the majority of cardiac-related ER visits, as the exertion on the heart can be quite strenuous after just minutes of lifting heavy snow. Furthermore, while cardiac-events trailed at only 6.5% of all shoveling-related ER admissions, they made up 100% of the fatalities, according to this study.
That should send a clear message to you and your older loved ones that people with cardiac disease should definitely consult with their healthcare provider before tackling the driveway themselves. The Boston Globe described this week's snow as just that: "Heart Attack Snow." Yikes!
Now that I've completely terrified myself with the perils of snow-shoveling, I'd like to recap the more optimistic report I've obtained from the scholarly journal Dynamic Chiropractic, in which chiropractor Douglas Briggs reminds us that shoveling should be seen as a marathon sport, with proper stretching done in advance to help loosen the muscles. To further prepare, he suggests spraying the shovel with Teflon, which prevents snow from sticking to the shovel as you attempt to fling it off!
Now, keep in mind that if shoveling is like a sport, which requires a good pre-game stretch, we've got to pick the right equipment. According to Dr. Briggs, the shovel of choice should be chest high, allowing you to keep your back straight when lifting. Keep one hand down by the base of the shovel to support the weight of the snow as you lift. Furthermore, the American Chiropractor Association even recommends an official shoveling stance: the "scissors stance", in which the right foot takes the forward stance while you shovel for a few minutes, and then your left foot takes the lead. Being aware of proper body mechanics is truly important, as we have seen that thousands of people are hospitalized from shoveling injuries.
Staying hydrated is important during physical activity, and shoveling is no exception. However, most of us down a cup of coffee or tea before bounding to the driveway, shovel in hand. We should probably take in more water before shoveling, instead.
A final chiropractic tip worth repeating is Dr. Brigg's keen advice to pay attention to the weather and shovel accordingly. I must say, it is far more pleasant to shovel when I'm not being side-smacked with 60 mile an hour winds. Dr. Briggs added a great suggestion when he noted that the "best" time to shovel, for your back's sake, is in the afternoon.
Apparently, in the morning, our backs are at a higher risk for disc injury because there is increased fluid pressure in the discs after the body has been at rest all night. So, if possible, shovel out later in the day, after a nice stretch and a few glasses of water to prepare you to become an Olympian snow-shoveling champion.
After all, if this week's snow-storm is any predictor of the winter we have in store, we are going to need all the preparation we can get!