Healthy Living

Watch Your Back: Avoid Injury While Shoveling Snow

Dec. 12, 2017
Snow shoveling isn’t just tedious—it can also pose a risk to your back, neck and shoulders if you aren’t doing it properly. Some 80 to 90 percent of people will seek care for a lower back injury at some time in their lives.
person shoveling snowUR Medicine Sports and Spine Rehabilitation physical therapist Bryan Guzski offers advice to help keep you safe while you’re digging out your driveway. 
Bad body mechanics can lead to injury even when you’re doing something mundane like cleaning your sidewalk. A lot of people flex forward at their back and then lift heavy snow, which puts them at risk of back strain or even a disc injury. It also puts stress on the rotator cuff muscles in your shoulder.
Snow piled up high around driveways presents an extra challenge, as many of us try to lift the shovel over our shoulders to throw it.
Any time you try to lift heavy weight above your shoulders, there’s a huge risk for shoulder injury. The force of the weight on your shoulder increases the further away the weight is from your body. So if you have to lift the shovel high, keep it as close to your torso as possible and consider ”choking up” on the shovel handle as you would a baseball bat when you’re ready to bunt. That helps balance the extra weight.
Consider these tips when the next flurry arrives:
  • Keep it neutral. Protect your back by keeping it in a “neutral” position. Your back has a natural curve; you need to focus on maintaining that curve while lifting or pushing anything. Rather than bending at the waist and throwing your back out of alignment, you want to keep that curve in your back and move from your hips. Whether you’re shoveling snow or lifting a heavy box, your spine is strongest when it’s in that curved, neutral position. If your low back is flat or flexed forward, you’re putting it at risk.
  • Use your legs. Your stronger leg muscles are better equipped to bear the brunt of the weight when you shovel.  Bend your knees so you’re in a squat position, and use your quadricep, hamstring and gluteus muscles to do the work rather than relying on your back muscles to lift. Staggering your stance so that one leg is in front of another helps.
  • Lighten your load. Don’t overload the shovel. You may want to finish the cleanup chore quickly, but don’t try lifting beyond your strength; know your limits.
  • Push it. Pushing is better than hoisting. If you have just a small area to clear and have room, push the snow to the side rather than lifting and throwing it.
  • Suit up. Dress for the job. Sturdy footwear with good tread not only keeps you warm but more stable on slick surfaces, reducing risk of injury from a fall.
  • Ease into it. Start slowly. Any time you’re doing some exercise (and shoveling can be a workout!) let your muscles warm up—start your shoveling slowly and gently. Then, if you want to get aerobic and shovel faster, you’re less likely to pull a muscle.
  • Take five. Stretch and take breaks. After you’ve spent a few minutes shoveling, gently stretch backward to give your muscles a break.
Bryan Guzski, physical therapist
Bryan Guzski is coordinator of the Spine Rehabilitation Program at UR Medicine’s Sports and Spine Rehabilitation. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy who helps patients prevent and rehabilitate neck and lower-back injuries and an Orthopedic Certified Specialist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.