Winter appears to have arrived early, bringing with it record snowfalls and cold temperatures across the country. It also brings an increased risk for injuries. Whether shoveling snow, dealing with icy roads, or simply trying to walk on wet, slippery pavement, caution is the key word.
"Wintry conditions require a careful approach," said Jeffrey Cole, M.D., director of electrodiagnostic and musculoskeletal medicine at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey (www.kessler-rehab.com). "Individuals need to plan ahead, take their time when shoveling snow or trying to get from place to place, and not overdo it. But we all know that despite the best plans, accidents and injuries will still occur."
According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, snow shoveling alone accounts for more than 11,500 emergency room visits each year. The most common problems are muscle strains, back injuries, including herniated discs, and tendinitis. Studies also indicate an increased rate of heart attacks related to snow shoveling. In addition, slips and falls can result in fractures and other orthopedic injuries, as well as more serious spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.
"Most people don't recognize the dangers that snow and ice present, nor do they realize the amount of stress that shoveling combined with cold weather, can put on the body. For older and more sedentary individuals, the likelihood of injury is even greater," explained Dr. Cole. "While we can't prevent injuries, we can try to minimize that risk."
Kessler Institute, a national leader in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation, offers the following suggestions:
- Avoid caffeine or nicotine before shoveling, especially if you have a history of or are at high risk for a heart attack. These stimulants may increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict, which places extra stress on the heart. If you have a heart condition, respiratory issues or back problems, check with your doctor before doing any shoveling.
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Dress in layers and be sure to wear a hat, gloves and sturdy, non-skid waterproof footwear. Avoid wearing scarves or hats that block your vision, and do wear sunglasses or goggles to reduce glare.
- Move slowly and cautiously, and watch where you are walking. What may look like wet pavement may actually be black ice, so be extra careful. When walking down stairs, plant your feet securely on each step and hold the handrail firmly.
- Before shoveling, warm up for about 10 minutes. Do some basic exercises to stretch your back, arms and legs, and walk or march in place. "Warm" muscles generally work more efficiently and are less likely to become injured.
- Try to shovel fresh snow, before it becomes, packed or refrozen. It may be helpful to shovel a few times during a snowfall rather than waiting until the storm ends when the snow is deeper and heavier.
- If possible, try pushing the snow rather than lifting. When lifting, pick up small amounts of snow at a time using your legs, not your back. Scoop the snow in a forward motion and step in the direction as you throw the snow. Avoid twisting and tossing the snow over your shoulder or to the side.
- Switch hands periodically and alternate the side to which you are throwing snow to more evenly distribute the work load and repetitive muscle use.
- Use a sturdy snow shovel that has open ends to allow you to easily toss the snow off to the side.
- Pace yourself. Be sure to take frequent breaks to rest and avoid overexertion. Exhaustion can make you more susceptible to injury, hypothermia and frostbite.
- Most important: If you begin to experience any pain in your chest, arm or neck, shortness of breath or profuse sweating, stop shoveling immediately and seek emergency medical attention.
Remember that snow shoveling is hard work. By understanding your own physical health and taking the appropriate precautionary measures, you can help to reduce the risk of injury during these long winter months.
Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation