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Tips on Minimizing the Risk of Back Pain While Shoveling

Austin shoveling snow.
Well, Winnipeg just had a nice dumping of snow and people are out shoveling their walkways and driveways. Invariably someone is going to hurt their back.  Why does this happen and how can we prevent it from happening?

Why does this happen?

There are many different variables that may explain why people hurt their back while shoveling.  The most common reason is based on mechanics.  Back injuries, specifically disc hernias, are often caused by repetitive flexion (rounding of the back forwards).  This repetitive movement puts stress on the outer layers of the intervertebral disc causing micro trauma.     This micro trauma adds up until at some point more significant trauma occurs causing inflammation and pain.  If the trauma is significant enough and the herniation bulges out, pressing on the nerves that exit the spine, then pain down the leg can result.

Being in this flexed position also results a significant amount of strain on the large muscles and smaller stabilizing muscles of the lower back.  If these muscles are not well conditioned then they will fatigue quicker in this poor posture position.  If over worked, these muscles may become strained; a muscle tear.

How do I prevent it from happening?

First and foremost, proper technique should be used.  Here are the tips that I give my patients.

  1. Keep the back straight with an appropriate amount of curve to the lower back
  2. Flex at the hips and not at the lower back.  This involves pushing the hips back each time you bend over.  This helps to load the gluteal muscles so that they can help with the movement
  3. Tighten the abdomen, abdominal bracing, during the movement
  4. Bend at the knees.  Bending at the knees takes some tension off the hamstrings so you can bend more at the hip and less at the lower back. It also helps to load the quadriceps to help with the movement.
  5. Look straight ahead rather than down at the shovel.  This helps prevent you from bending at the lower back. 

Secondly, you need to be conditioned for the activity.  This involves having a strong core and good flexibility.  Sadly, this is not going to help you today because you can’t get in shape instantly.  So this is what I recommend to my Chiropractic patients.

  1. Take frequent breaks. If it is a big job that you have to do take a break and rest the body.  I suggest that you stand up, place your hands on your lower back and arch your back for about a minute or so.  This gives you the opportunity to be away from the stressful position for a little bit.
  2. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Don’t fill up the shovel completely, especially if it is wet snow.  This can be a considerable amount of weight that you will be lifting.  Less weight lifted might mean taking longer to get the job done but will also lessen the stress on the intervertebral discs and muscles.  It might help to use a smaller shovel so less can be put on it.
  3. Ask for help. A job always takes less time if you work with another person. This means there will be less physical stress on both of your bodies.   If you have kids this is a great way to teach them about living an active lifestyle.  

It is worthwhile to take a look at this video for more tips of shoveling.

Are there any other tips you can think of? Post them below.

Until next week, take care of your back while you shovel.

Dr Notley
Winnipeg’s only Chiropractor and Athletic Therapist 

Originally posted on May 17, 2022 @ 4:40 pm