21 Fri

Save your back and your heart when the snow comes

When the snow hits the ground, you have to go out and shovel it.  But be careful, no other chore carries with it more risk.  People who are generally sedentary are at a higher risk of heart attack and back injury when shovelling snow than any other activity.

Let’s try and shave down some of that risk.  First, the reason why most heart attacks happen with shovelling snow is something called the “Valsalva Maneuver”.  Basically it’s when you bear down while doing something strenuous and your epiglottis is closed (that’s the little flap in your throat that separates the trachea and esophagus).  When it’s closed, no air escapes.  Reflexively, it happens when you swallow food, so no food particles go down your windpipe.  When you consciously do it, it usually happens when you lift or move something heavy and you strain to do it.  Not a good thing.

Trying to hold your breath while doing something strenuous increases your intra-thoracic pressure, and that increases your blood pressure.  A sharp rise in blood pressure can put an increased strain on blood vessels that may be fragile to begin with.  This can cause the heart attack or a slew of other cardiovascular injuries…

First step, never hold your breath when you’re out there lifting a shovel filled with snow.  Keep your epiglottis open and exhale when you lift that shovel.

Now let’s look at your back.  The lumbar spine, your low back, is good at bending forward and backward, but doesn’t like rotation.  Combine those two movements and you have shovelling snow: bend forward and twist to raise the shovel to the side.  Your back hates that.  Best way to cut that down is to cut down the rotation forces and use your legs.  Get low, bending your knees when you load the shovel, and then use your legs, and then step to turn.

Here’s some tips to saving your back when shovelling snow:

  1. Keep the shovel close to your body, don’t over reach.  The farther the shovel and load is from your body, the more torque on your back.
  2. Bend at the knees and hips, keeping your back straight.  The hips are more suited to load weight on than the low back.
  3. Load the shovel with snow that you can lift by stepping forward, don’t over reach and don’t overload it.
  4. Keeping the shovel as close to your body, straighten your knees and hips, lifting the shovel.  Use your legs and not your back, bottom line.
  5. Turn by stepping with your feet, then rotate the shovel, dumping the snow out.
  6. Repeat.

Use these tips to save your back and cut your risk of a heart attack during those heavy snow shovelling sessions.  Take it easy, take your time, and be careful.  Your body will thank you for it.  For more information, contact the physical therapists at Professional Physical Therapy and Training, conveniently located in the Madison and Summit YMCAs.

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