Big snowstorms may seem far in the future, but now is the time you should be training your body for the heavy snow lifting that may to come at some point this winter. “People commonly underestimate the physical challenge involved in clearing large amounts of snow,” said Dr. Alex Levchenko, a board-certified, fellowship trained physician who specializes in the non-operative treatment of spine, joint and muscle pain. “This is especially true for people who lead inactive lives, but even someone in good shape can suffer back pain from the strain of lifting and rotating the back to toss snow in a pile.”
Dr. Levchenko advises everyone to strengthen the muscles in their core and back before starting any strenuous upper body activity. “You wouldn’t try to lift 100 pounds at the gym if you’ve never lifted that much weight before. It’s the same with shoveling snow. You have to build up to it,” he said.
Dr. Levchenko said the number of patients he sees with back pain increases after every large snowfall. “People tend to think of shoveling snow as a nuisance when it is really an intense form of exercise.”
When large snowfalls do occur, he recommends getting ahead of the accumulations by shoveling smaller amounts every few hours rather than waiting for inches of snow to pile up and freeze.
As with any exercise, it’s important to warm up your muscles before you head outside. Once the shoving is underway, maintaining proper posture and body mechanics will minimize stress to the weaker back muscles. That means keeping a straight back while leaning forward and having a slight bend in the knees.
It’s also important to use your core, hips and hamstrings to provide strength and stability rather than relying on your back and shoulder muscles to do the heavy lifting. Using ergonomically designed “push” shovels can also help ease lower back strain. If back pain develops during the activity, stop and rest for a while.
If the pain continues, conservative treatment using anti-inflammatory medication and ice to the area usually reduces the discomfort. However, back pain that lasts more than a few days should be evaluated by a physician who specializes in spine conditions.
Dr. Levchenko advises people with pre-existing back conditions to avoid shoveling altogether. “It’s better to pay someone else to do it and save yourself from all the ways the increased back pain will impact your life,” he said.