Back pain is the most common injury, starts in your 20s, and can quickly escalate from an isolated issue to a recurring problem. An average adult will experience one-to-two episodes of back pain each year. Certain activities, like improper snow shoveling, put additional stress on your soft tissues that lead to ligament, tendon, and muscle injuries.
Most snow shoveling mishaps are a result of an unexpected fall or over-exhausting the body’s muscles. But there are things everyone, regardless of their cardiovascular condition, can do to protect their back and muscles from injury.
Listening to your local weather forecasts can help you properly prepare before the snowfall begins. A few hours before the anticipated snowfall, place down salt to make your shoveling job easier.
Additionally, free up your schedule and clear the snow as early in the day as you can, preventing it from pilling up. Since the weight of snow varies, light fluffy snow only weighs seven pounds per cubic foot compared to compacted snow which can weigh 20 pounds or more.
All joints have synovial fluid which lubricates the articular cartilage and provides a smooth gliding action. It is a known fact that temperature changes the viscosity of the fluid. For example, on a cold snow day, it may be difficult for you to start your car. However, as the engine warms up, the car begins to run smoothly. Besides the lubrication issue in the winter, we also have a problem with our musculature. When the temperatures drop to freezing, we contract our muscles causing a compression across the joint surfaces which leads to pain.
Just like our cars, our bodies need to be properly warmed up before any strenuous activity, like shoveling. Typically, a shovel with snow can weigh up to 30lbs, and to shovel, the full driveway and walkway can take 30-45 minutes. Before braving the elements, take a few minutes to do some light stretching to warm up your muscles for the work ahead. Remember, warm muscles respond best to movement and exercise. Depending on your physical level, take breaks before your muscles get too tired. A fatigued body is at a higher risk for injury.
Shoveling is a cardiovascular workout that requires the use of your arms and legs, so dress accordingly so you’re staying warm, but are still able to move your muscles. Also wearing proper snow boots with good traction will prevent a fall on the slippery ground.
First, make sure your shovel is not too long or too heavy for you to lift. If you can push the snow to the side instead of lifting it above your shoulders to protect your back. If you do have to lift, use your legs, and avoid twisting your back or throwing snow over your shoulder as this motion puts a lot of stress on your back. Let your arms and legs do the heavy lifting, not your back. Lastly, go slow. If there’s a lot of snow buildup, don’t rush, and instead, work in sections by removing the snow in layers.
Depending on your current cardiovascular health, you might feel incredibly sore afterward. A warm Epsom salt bath afterward, some ice to remove inflammation, or even taking acetaminophen to relieve some minor aches and pains. When the soft tissues of the spine are injured, inflammation results. The best way to calm down the inflammation is to take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a pain reliever. What is known is that taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) along with an NSAID can have added effect of producing pain relief.
For those who prefer not to take medication orally, another route of administration is topical medications such as Voltaren gel which is an anti-inflammatory, or Salan Pas patches which is topical lidocaine. Heating pads can be soothing and help by increasing circulation to promote healing. It is always important to monitor the amount of heat applied so you don’t develop a burn.
Most often the pain, from shoveling injuries, will resolve on its own without requirements for medication or treatment. It is only such warning signs as pain that lasts more than six weeks, back pain associated with neurologic symptoms down the legs, or a bowel or bladder dysfunction should they be concerned about. If these symptoms or conditions occur, seek medical attention immediately.
Dr. Brian A Cole, M.D., FAAOS is an American Board-Certified Orthopedic Surgeon and the owner of Englewood Spine Associates a medical facility that provides expert care in minimally invasive cervical and lumbar total disc replacement and endoscopic targeted surgery. To learn more, please visit http://englewood-spine.com/.