How to Shovel Snow and Prevent Back Pain

Scott Bautch, DC explains the perils of shoveling snow and how to protect your back and body.

When the forecast calls for a heavy, sticky snow, Scott Bautch, DC, DACBOH, CCST, CCSP, knows he’ll see a spike in patients who have back injuries from shoveling.

Dr. Bautch is a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) and chiropractor in Wausau, WI. He says shoveling isn’t simply a chore—it’s an activity that requires preparation, skill, and recovery. That’s why SpineUniverse reached out to him for his best advice on how to save your back while snow shoveling.
Motorist Digging Car Out Of SnowLeaning forward and twisting with a load causes more injuries than any other movement or activity we do.Q: How can improper snow shoveling threaten your spine’s health?

Dr. Bautch: Starting with the most catastrophic situation, it can lead to a disc injury. When you hold a shovel weighted down by snow in front of your body, you put thousands of pounds of weight and pressure on your spinal discs. If you already had a bulging disc, you could rupture that disc during snow shoveling.

A lesser serious problem caused by snow shoveling is that you might irritate a disc. Or, you may hurt the ligaments that support the spine.

The top cause of low back pain is repeatedly twisting and bending. Leaning forward and twisting with a load causes more injuries than any other movement or activity we do. If you repeatedly grab something in front of you—a shovel filled with snow, for example—then twist and throw, I couldn’t design a worse motion for your back.

Q: Please describe the proper snow shoveling form.

Dr. Bautch: You want to take the bending and twisting at your waist out of it. Instead, use as much of your body as possible. Bend at your ankles, knees, and hips as you shovel—don’t lean forward.

As you pick up the snow, step forward with your body and throw the snow straight away from you instead of sideways. So, don’t twist and throw—bend your ankles, knees, and hips, and step into the throw. When you throw the snow, make sure your toes and hips are facing the same direction.

Also, make sure you switch the shovel between your left and right hands. I recommend starting on your non-dominant hand first. If you start with your dominant hand, the tendency is to stay too long on that side. If you use your non-dominant hand first, you’re more likely to switch between hands quicker.

Finally, don’t forget to take rest breaks. I suggest people start shoveling before the snow is done, then take a break, and go out after it’s done. If you have to shovel twice, it is safer and easier than shoveling when there is a ton of heavy snow on the ground.

Q: Should people with certain spinal conditions avoid shoveling entirely?

Dr. Bautch: Absolutely. If you have an unstable back, it’s not worth it—even with proper form. When I say “unstable,” I mean that if your back hurts easily when you engage in activity, don’t shovel snow. Also, if you’ve had spine surgery or have a spinal disability, I would get approval from your doctor before shoveling.

Also, I’d caution against shoveling if you have a heart condition or if you are excessively deconditioned. Snow shoveling is an activity that is incredibly stressful structurally on your spine and physically on your cardiovascular system. If you haven’t worked out for a few weeks or have low aerobic fitness, you put yourself at greater risk of injury.

Q: Are there specific types of shovels that you recommend people invest in?

Dr. Bautch: Some people think the bigger the shovel, the better, but it increases the chances that you’ll shovel incorrectly. A larger shovel means you’re more likely to hold more snow, which means more weight and more pressure on your back.

I like ergonomic shovels. Ideally, you shouldn’t bend your back at all while shoveling—all bending should be in your ankles, knees, and hips. Ergonomic shovels allow your back to stay upright because the handle is bent instead of straight. A bent handle makes it easy to use for both right and left hands, too.
Man using an ergonomic shovelErgonomic shovels allow your back to stay upright because the handle is bent instead of straight.As with anything, don’t buy the cheapest shovel. Get a good shovel with a good blade that easily disengages the snow when you throw. If the snow sticks to the shovel as you go to throw the snow off, you may feel an unexpected pull or jerk forward. It’s that pull that lands many people in my office with pain.

Q: What about snow shoveling gear and proper attire?

Dr. Bautch: Always wear shoes that grip, are comfortable, and protect you. People often rush out to shovel before work and wear their work shoes. Keep your boots by your door to encourage you to wear the proper footwear.

Also, wear gloves that enhance your grip on the shovel and are comfortable. Wear clothes that will protect you and keep you warm (but not too warm, so wear layers). Don’t think of snow shoveling as a chore—it’s an activity. If you’re going to do an athletic event, you dress appropriately for that event and prepare for it. The same should be the case for snow shoveling.

Q: What tips do you have to take care of yourself and prevent injury after shoveling?

Dr. Bautch: The worst thing you can do after shoveling is go to a postural compromised position. For example, don’t recline on an overstuffed couch and watch football for 3 hours immediately after shoveling. That position will stiffen your back.

As with any activity, your body swells up after snow shoveling. That swelling in our back sets us up for injury, so you need to pull fluid in to speed your recovery time to move fluid out of your joints. To recover and ease that swelling, you want to stay moving (gentle movement is fine—you don’t need to rush around your house). If you sit, make sure it’s in a chair that keeps your spinal posture intact. I encourage all my patients to ice and slow down after activity like snow shoveling.

Q: Any advice for safely using a snow blower?

Dr. Bautch: When using a snow blower, people often twist and rip the cord repeatedly—and that motion isn’t good for your back.

I suggest people have self-awareness with any seasonal activity that is outside their regular routine. Realize if you’ve gotten deconditioned. Everything in life—even snow blowing or snow shoveling—gives you a window to show you how healthy you are. As you engage in these activities, take time to think about whether you need to take better care of yourself.

You may not realize that if you severely hurt your back, it can change your life forever. And oftentimes, people hurt their backs doing everyday things like snow shoveling. You never get a chance to return from a severe spinal injury and get back to 100% what you were before that injury. So, don’t take this activity lightly.

Updated on: 11/21/17
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