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Save Your Back When Shoveling Snow

Improve Your Snow Shoveling Mechanics to Avoid Injury

‘Tis the season for hot cocoa, warm fires, and lots of snow. With snow comes shoveling, and unfortunately with shoveling comes injury. It is estimated that there are over 11,000 hospital visits each year due to injuries while shoveling snow. This number does not even include the thousands of people that see their primary care doctor with the onset of an injury. Many of these medical visits involve the low back including complaints of pain with movement, leg numbness, and the inability to maintain the proper posture. Lumbar injuries while shoveling are often due to the combination of repeated flexion and rotation of the spine. Adding the load of snow and having poor spine stabilization during the lift results in overload on the structures of the lumbar spine and resultant injury. Here are three exercises you can use to improve your shoveling mechanics in order to spend more time sipping cocoa by the fire, and less time in a physician’s waiting room.

  1. Hip Hinge – a proper movement pattern to bend forward and push snow involves flexion at the hips and knees, while maintaining a more neutral spine.
  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Using a broom stick, golf club, or wooden dowel, place the stock along your lumbar spine.
  • The stick should come in contact with the back of your head, mid-thoracic spine (between your shoulder blades), and at the sacrum/mid-buttock.
  • With a slight bend in your knees, hinge your hips by driving your buttock backwards, while maintaining the three points of contact throughout the movement.
  • Perform ten repetitions

Common mistakes: squatting versus hinging – try and minimize knee bend. Your buttock should move backwards, not down.

Losing contact with the stick – if you notice the stick is leaving the sacrum the spine is flexing. Slow down the movement and move only as far as you can with contact.

  1. Isometric Hip Bridge – once you have properly bent forward to push and load the snow, using the buttock and hamstring muscles to lift the snow will decrease strain of muscles of the lower back.
  • Start lying on your back, knees bent, and hands raised straight in the air.
  • Push through your heels driving your hips upwards, hold for 5-10 seconds, and return. Repeat this movement 10 times.
  • If you find that you feel this more in the low back than the legs or buttocks, try squeezing a pillow at your knees during the lift.
  1. Rotational Step – now that you have properly bent to load the snow, and used the proper muscles to lift it, increasing rotation at the hips to move the snow versus rotating through the lumbar spine will reduce torsional strain on the vertebral discs and spinal stabilizers.
  • Begin by standing in an athletic stance with your feet shoulder width apart and slight bend in your knees.
  • Keeping one foot in place, open up through your hips by stepping to the side and backwards. Your weight should be evenly distributed between the feet.
  • Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement, being mindful not to bend forward or rotate through the spine.
  • Perform 10 repetitions to each side.

See video demonstration of these exercises: here

Sean Duffey, DPT

Clinic Director, Ivy Rehab, Ortonville

Every winter, in our physical therapy clinics, we treat numerous snow shoveling related lower back, neck, and hip injuries.  These patients shoveled snow one time and suffered pain so intense that it required medical attention.  All of these problems could have been avoided with some preparation, alteration of technique, and common sense.

snow_shovelingShovel Ready

Athletes prepare for performance with a series of warm up activities specific to their sport.  A baseball player, soccer player, or boxer would never walk into a competition “cold” because they know the risk of injury is much higher if they do not warm up.  Despite this knowledge almost everyone shovels snow without any type of physical preparation.  They pull on their coats, grab the shovel, and without any preparation, charge into an extremely challenging activity.  A snow shoveling warm up of simple stretches and mobility drills takes five minutes and can greatly reduce your chance of injury.

Snowman Mechanics

Poor mechanics when shoveling snow is often the cause of spinal injuries.  Combining spinal flexion (forward bending) with loading (shovel full of snow) and rotation (twisting) is the ergonomic “perfect storm” for lower back pain.  When you lift a big scoop of snow and twist to throw it sideways you create the force combination that can damage the lower lumbar discs and joints.  Push the snow, and if possible, avoid lifting and throwing.  Keep the spine long and straight and bend at the hips and knees so the legs can help perform the work.  Keep your arms wide on the handle and your neck relaxed.  Frequently switching the shovel to the other side spreads the cumulative loads evenly across the body.   The loads on the shovel should be manageable.  You are better off lifting less snow and working longer than lifting more and adding greater compression to the spine.

Shovel 101

Choose the right equipment.  Many snow shovels are just too heavy.  I recommend using a light plastic or aluminum shovel.  Some steel shovels can weigh well over nine pounds and this extra weight can create too much stress on your body.  Wear boots that prevent your feet from slipping.  You must be able to grip the ground to properly transfer force through the legs when shoveling.  Wear good gloves and purchase a shovel with an end handle if you have any problems with grip strength or arthritis in the fingers or wrists.

Live to Shovel Another Day

Finally, if the heaviest object you have lifted in the last six months has been the television remote, you should just hire someone to shovel the snow.  Shoveling snow is a demanding work activity that requires a moderate amount of fitness.  One of the best reasons to exercise on a regular basis is that it enables you to safely perform tasks such as shoveling snow.  The vast majority of snow shoveling injuries happen to people who lead sedentary lifestyles.

-Michael O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

The Scoop On Snow Shoveling

Preventing Driveway Disasters

snow shovelingEvery winter, in our physical therapy clinics, we treat numerous snow shoveling related lower back, neck, and hip injuries.  These patients shoveled snow one time and suffered pain so intense that it required medical attention.  All of these problems could have been avoided with some preparation, alteration of technique, and common sense.  

Athletes prepare for performance with a series of warm up activities specific to their sport.  A baseball player, soccer player, or boxer would never walk into a competition “cold” because they know the risk of injury is much higher if they do not warm up.  Despite this knowledge, almost everyone shovels snow without any type of physical preparation.  They pull on their coats, grab their shovels, and charge into an extremely challenging activity for their cardiac and skeletal system.  A snow shoveling warm up takes five minutes and can greatly reduce your chance of injury.  Try some of the exercises in the accompanying video to help you warm up for snow shoveling.  

Poor mechanics when shoveling snow is often the cause of spinal injuries.  Combining spinal flexion (forward bending) with loading (shovel full of snow) and rotation (twisting) is the ergonomic “perfect storm” for lower back pain.  When you lift a big scoop of snow and twist to throw it sideways, you create the force combination that can damage the lower lumbar discs and joints.  Push the snow, and if possible, avoid lifting and throwing.  Keep the spine long and straight and bend at the hips and knees so the legs can help perform the work.  Keep your arms wide on the handle and your neck relaxed.  Frequently switching the shovel to the other side spreads the cumulative loads evenly across the body.   The loads on the shovel should be manageable.  You are better off lifting less snow and working longer than lifting more and adding greater compression to the spine.  

Choose the right equipment.  Many snow shovels are just too heavy.  I recommend using a light plastic or aluminum shovel.  Some steel shovels can weigh well over nine pounds and this extra weight can create too much stress on your body.  Wear boots that prevent your feet from slipping.  You must be able to grip the ground to properly transfer force through the legs when shoveling.  Wear good gloves, and purchase a shovel with an end handle if you have any problems with grip strength or arthritis in the fingers or wrists.   

Finally, if the heaviest object you have lifted in the last six months has been the television remote, you should just hire someone to shovel the snow.  Shoveling snow is a demanding work activity that requires a moderate degree of fitness and good body mechanics to be performed safely.  One of the best reasons to exercise on a regular basis is that it enables you to safely perform tasks such as shoveling snow.  The vast majority of snow shoveling injuries happen to people who lead sedentary lives.  

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

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