Loyola doctor offers tips to stay healthy during shoveling season

Mother Nature scored a touchdown this Super Bowl Sunday, dumping more than a foot of wet, heavy snow on the Chicago area and causing many to take to the streets and alleys to clear thoroughfares. But bending and lifting the wrong way to shovel snow can lead to a trip to the Emergency Department.

"Each year, an average of 11,500 people are treated in emergency departments across the United States for heart attacks, broken bones and other injuries related to snow shoveling," said Richard Gonzalez, MD, director of the division of Trauma, Critical Care & Acute Care Surgery at Loyola University Health System.

Chicago celebrated the Super Bowl with a snow storm that dumped 14.2 inches of accumulation, putting it in a tie for the area's 10th largest snowstorm in recorded history, according to the National Weather Service.

"The slow start to winter and relatively limited snowfall this season caused many to relax. This heavy show caught many people off-guard," says Gonzalez, co-director of The Burn and Shock Trauma Research Institute of Loyola University Chicago. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reports that of winter trauma event, soft-tissue injuries such as bumps, sprains, blisters and bruises were the most common (55 percent), lacerations or cuts (16 percent) and fractures (7 percent.) The lower back is the most frequently injured region of the body (34 percent) followed by injuries to the arms and hands (16 percent) and head (15 percent.)

Gonzalez recommends that people with a history of back or heart problems let someone else do the heavy lifting. If you have to do it yourself, he says, know your limits and don't overdo it. "We know that 100 percent of the 1,647 fatalities associated with shoveling snow are from cardiac-related injuries, although they account for only 7 percent of the total number of cases," says Gonzalez.

"Shoveling is a very physical activity that is comparable to lifting heavy weights repeatedly and quickly," says Joe Berg, fitness specialist and manager for the Loyola Center for Fitness. "As with any exercise, it's important to begin with a five- to 10-minute warm-up."

He suggests taking a brief walk or marching in place to get your body ready for the physical strain. Also, try adding arm movements and stretching your back to warm up the upper body.

Here are a few more tips to help you stay healthy during shoveling season:

•Dress appropriately. Wearing layers allows you to adjust to the temperature outside. When you are going to be outside for a long time, cover your skin to prevent frostbite.

•Use a small shovel that has a curved handle. A shovel with wet snow can weigh up to 15 pounds. A small shovel ensures you have a lighter load, which can prevent injury.

•Separate your hands on the shovel. By creating space between your hands, you can increase your leverage on the shovel.

•Lift with your legs, not your back. Make sure your knees are bending and straightening to lift the shovel instead of leaning forward and straightening with the back.

•Shovel frequently. Don't wait until the snow piles up. Shovel intermittently, about every 2 inches.

•Push the snow. It is easier and better for your back to push the snow rather than lift it. Also, never throw snow over your shoulders.

•Pace yourself. Take breaks and gently stretch your back, arms and legs before returning to work.

•Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water is important when exercising, regardless of the outside temperature.

•Avoid caffeine and nicotine. These stimulants increase the heart rate and constrict blood vessels, putting a strain on your heart.

•Avoid alcoholic beverages. Alcohol can dull your senses and make you vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite.

"Each season has its own particular set of risks, but winter with its snowstorms, plunging temperatures and wind chill can be especially daunting when it comes to safety," says Gonzalez.

Source: Loyola University Health System

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