Shoveling Snow: How to Protect Your Back

Winter is officially here and the snow has already begun falling fast. It won’t be long before I’ll hear patients complaining about back pain due to spending countless hours in their driveway trying to shovel themselves out. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be the case. With proper body mechanics, we can save our backs and still keep our driveways plowed. Listed below are the topics that will be discussed:

  1. How shoveling snow causes back pain
  2. Proper body mechanics when shoveling snow

How Shoveling Snow Causes Back Pain

Before diving into how to properly shovel snow, let’s first take a look into why we often get back pain from shoveling. It is no secret that repetitive bending and lifting is detrimental to your back, so it isn’t hard to imagine why shoveling snow could be harmful. A study by Nachemson found that bending forward can exert an extra 150% of pressure on the discs in your low back, and bending forward with rotation can increase pressure levels up to 400%1. If that wasn’t bad enough, these numbers only reflect the act of bending and twisting without any weight. Knowing this, imagine how much pressure is added to the discs with the added weight of a snow filled shovel.

To better understand the effects of pressure on the discs in our lower back, let’s take a quick look into the anatomy of our spine. 

A diagram shows the difference between a healthy disc and a herniated disc.

Our lower back consists of 5 vertebrae with discs sitting in between each one. The discs act as spacers and shock absorbers, providing space in between the vertebrae and an opening for the passage of our nerves. Think of the disc as a jelly donut; there is an outer layer with fluid on the inside. Too much pressure on the front of the disc causes the gel portion to migrate backwards, potentially causing a disc herniation.


Proper Body Mechanics When Shoveling

In order to save yourself from injury, maintaining a neutral spine is essential. Instead of flexing from the back, keep a small arch in your low back and bend from your hips, going into a mini lunge. Then, lift the snow by standing up and pushing your hips forward. Your hip and thigh muscles are much stronger than your back, so using this method can save you from straining and causing damage.

Correct Shoveling Technique

Incorrect Shoveling Technique

Along with maintaining proper body mechanics, it is important that we avoid unnecessary strain by avoiding certain movements. Instead of picking up the snow and then immediately turning to throw it to the side or over your shoulder, always move the snow forward so that you can avoid twisting, especially in a flexed position. 

Lastly, don’t feed into the “let’s just get it over with” attitude. Once you start feeling tired, you’ll be less likely to maintain proper body mechanics and you’ll start lifting more snow than you can handle. Always take breaks throughout and stick to shoveling small piles at a time. For really deep snow, break the layers up into two so that you aren’t lifting large amounts at a time. 

Although these tips should help you to save your back this winter, if you are interested in getting a more customized approach then click the link below. Buffalo Rehab Group is currently offering free consultations by our Physical Therapists. If you are currently suffering from pain or would like additional guidance, then a free discovery visit is your next step!

Schedule Your Free Consult Here

Resources:

  1. Nachemson, Alf, and G. O. S. T. A. Elfstrom. “Intravital dynamic pressure measurements in lumbar discs.” Scand J Rehabil Med 2.suppl 1 (1970): 1-40.
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