How to Avoid Injury While Shoveling

It’s that time of year again; days are shorter, leaves are falling, and temps are dropping. That means all of us Western New Yorkers will soon be buried in snow, reaching for the shovel to dig our way out. With heavy snow fall comes an influx of patient’s due to injury. A number of patients suffer from back pain due to improper shoveling techniques. While the snow is inevitable, an injury while removing it is not. Maintaining proper mechanics and shoveling techniques will help you avoid a trip to my office.

To better understand how back injuries occur, let’s have a quick anatomy lesson. Our spine has twenty four vertebrae; with five vertebrae found in the lumbar spine (L1-L5). Between each vertebrae we have gel like discs to act as cushions. These discs work great as shock absorbers, however they are not well equipped to handle the torsion caused by repetitive bending and twisting (ie. Shoveling). Our spine is designed to remain in a neutral position for proper force transfer. Repetitive bending and twisting can weaken the disc; leading to bulges, herniations, or degenerative disc disease over time.

Time to put your anatomy lesson to good use. If bending and twisting are bad for the spine, how do we protect it from injury while shoveling?

Proper Body Mechanics for Pushing Snow


The key to avoiding injury minimizing any excess movement through the spine. Our hips are designed to carry the load. To correctly push snow, there should be a backward shift of your hips (blue line) while your back remains straight (red line). To move the snow you should be using your legs to push not your arms. The best way to do that is by keeping the shovel close to your body. As demonstrated in the photo above, incorrect mechanics involve bending of the spine (red line), no bend at the hips or knees (blue line), and the shovel far away from the upper body.

Proper Body Mechanics for Lifting and Dumping Snow


To correctly lift the snow, you should be hinging at your hips (blue line), lifting with your legs, and maintaining a neutral spine (red line). Can you spot the differences in the pictures? On the right she is bending at the spine, keeping her legs straight, has no motion from her hips, and is lifting with her arms.

Here are some additional quick tips to keep in mind while shoveling snow:

1. Warm up: No, I don’t mean by grabbing a blanket, a hot drink, and curling up by the fire. You need to get your blood pumping by walking and stretching to prevent injury. A proper warm up will prepare your muscles for the task at hand. You want to not only warm up your back muscles, but also your leg muscles as well since they will be put to work.
2. Take your time: It is not a competition against neighbors for who can clear the driveway quicker. Increased speed leads to sloppy work and loss of proper body mechanics, putting yourself more susceptible to injury.
3. Use a snow blower for heavier snow: We are known for days (or hours) where several FEET of snow falls. Lifting and pushing dozens of inches over the full length of the driveway (over the whole winter)isn’t the best recipe for a healthy back. If available, use a snow blower, plow, or ask a friend for help.

What’s the best way to protect your spine? The easy answer is to not shovel at all…we can all dream right? Chances are, you will have to shovel at some point this winter. Take the precautions now. Learn more about how to properly shovel at our East Aurora location for a free seminar.

1. Magee, D. Orthopedic Physical Assessment. 5th Edition. Saunders. 2007.