Snow Removal - Watch Your Back

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Back Pain in Winter

Winter is just around the corner, but snow is here already and many of us have been faced with the task of clearing the sidewalks and driveways of white stuff. It's no exaggeration to say it's real work to shovel snow. For the heart, it's like jogging a 12-minute mile -- not a competitive speed, but stressful if one has heart disease and is not used to that much exercise. If the air is very cold, the stress level is even higher.

The back isn't designed to handle the kind of lifting associated with shoveling snow unless it's done properly. From about the mid-30s, the spinal discs become more brittle and subject to injury. It's easy to damage a disc in the pursuit of a clear sidewalk. Snow blowers can help save the back, but their powerful blades can take off a finger or hand if people don't use them carefully.

Icy patches can result in falls with injuries to hips, backs, arms and legs. Cold air can cause frostbite and hypothermia. For those who do not live in the south, here are some tips for getting through the winter without injury.

Those who don't exercise regularly should check with their doctors before taking on the stress of shoveling snow. Warm up by doing light exercise before attempting to shovel. Have a little breakfast -- some nutrition is needed to do the work but a heavy meal and vigorous exercise can compete for circulation and lead to stomach cramps. It doesn't have to be done all at once -- it's less stressful to do it a little at a time. Stop and rest if it is too much. If chest pressure or pain develops, call 911.

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Lift small amounts of snow and keep the shovel close to the body rather than in front with arms extended, particularly with heavy or deep snow. Try to bend the knees with the back straight, scoop some snow and straighten up, lifting with the knees, not the spine. Carry the snow to pile it or throw it forward. Throwing to the side or twisting to throw snow puts extreme stress on the spinal discs and can rupture one. Try not to bend at the waist.

Never put hands or feet into a snow blower. If there's a clog, don't just disengage the auger; shut off the engine and wait a minute until all movement stops, then use only a wooden or plastic device to unclog the blades.

Drink plenty of warm liquids to maintain hydration and body heat and be sure to dress appropriately. Since shoveling is hard work, dress with lighter clothing than if you were not working. Layers trap warmth until some body heat develops, then an outer layer may be removed. Protect ears and fingers to prevent frostbite.

Wear insulated boots to protect feet from the cold, particularly when walking in the snow. Slip-resistant soles will reduce the risk of falls. Once the snow is removed, use salt, sand or gravel on icy patches to reduce the chance of slipping.

If back pain develops, rest for a day or two but no more. Recovery is quicker with early movement, but don't resume lifting until the pain is resolved. Apply ice to the painful area off and on for the first day or two then use heat for only 15 to 20 minutes at a time to allow the skin to cool between applications. Most people can use Tylenol, ibuprofen (Advil and others) or naproxen (Aleve and others) for pain. If back pain continues severely after a couple days' rest, check with the doctor. People who already have a disc problem should avoid lifting snow at all if possible.

Snow-covered fields and trees present a pretty picture around Christmas time. With a few precautions, the winter wonderland can be enjoyed from someplace other than a bed.

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