Shoveling Snow: Protecting Your Low Back

Well, it’s here and well before most of us wanted it. The snow is falling and at the time of this writing, some locations are looking to get a full winter’s worth of snow in a few short days. A new hatred for “the Snowbelt” has formed, and although we’re all seemingly calm (compared to Atlanta, GA last year over a few inches), an epidemic is on the horizon: back pain.

The latest snow totals are towering over snow blowers, leaving plows stranded, and have left a large percentage of Western New Yorkers to barebones snow removal: a shovel. If you’re lucky, you have a teenager or two with some time on their hands, but for the rest of us it’s a frequent two-three hour visit to our driveway. It’s no secret that repeated lifting and bending are a detriment to your low back. A study conducted by Nachemson found that simply bending forward can exert an extra 150% of pressure on the lumbar discs, while bending forward with rotation can skyrocket levels up to 400%.(1) These numbers reflect a strict bend and twist—that’s with zero weight added. Tack on a snow filled shovel and you’ll be looking at an exponential increase in added disc pressure. Worse yet, the weight of the shovel being displaced away from your center of mass, increases the torque, strain, and stress to the lumbar spine.

The way you clear your driveway is likely an issue, too. Awkward reaching, bending, and throwing equate to damaging shearing forces through the low back. A damaging combination of haste and freezing temperatures often lead us to larger shovel loads, more awkward positioning, and a faster rate of shoveling. We won’t even begin to touch upon the clearing from the cement-weighted gift the town plow left you at the end of the drive.

injury, back, shoveling, snow

The Anatomy

Our lumbar (low back) discs sit between the vertebra in our spine. They act as spacers, providing height and opening for the passage of our nerves. The disc is like a jelly donut. Too much pressure up front the gel portion of the disc migrates backwards, possibly causing a “disc herniation.”

The repeated bending and lifting, all awhile we adopt awkward positions, are killers. Uncovering buried cars, driveways, and sidewalks promote awkwardness. As we bend, reach, and shift into positions we haven’t seen since childhood. Not only have jobs associated with frequent trunk twisting or lateral bending been found to be associated with the risk of low back injury, but asymmetry (found frequently in shoveling snow) our muscular strength through our low back decreases.(2) That means you’re increasing the load to your spine (per the study above), but also decreasing the strength of your spine. A certain recipe for disaster: more pressure, less strength.

What to do?

Obviously the easiest answer is to hire a plow or to snow blow, limiting your repeated bending and lifting; however, some instances require you to go old school. For those of us who need to dig ourselves out, you’ll want to put these pieces into practice.

1. Small Manageable Shifts

Fatigue breeds laziness. Once you reach that, “I don’t care anymore I just need to clear the driveway” you’re opening yourself to low back injury. You’ll begin reaching further and hauling heavier shovels: a big no-no. By breaking the task up you can keep your strength fresh and may be able to prevent more awkward positions. Also, sloughing off a top layer of show can prevent you from a slushly, weighted surprise below. For deep snow–try to shovel the top layer, then the bottom.

2. Practice Good Spine Mechanics

Bending is inevitable while shoveling, but how you bend can make a big difference. Practicing a ‘hip hinge’ technique can remove some strain from your low back and transfer it to your powerful hips. You’ll want to practice what we call “neutral spine mechanics.” Do your best to keep a small arch in your low back and lift with your hips (envision pushing your hips forward). Keep reminding yourself: bending and rotating are the enemies!

3. Find The Right Shovel

You would think that all shovels are treated equal, right? A 2002 study found that shoveling with a “bent shaft” shovel can alter your mechanics, possibly decreasing damaging forces to the spine.(3) Said study found that when using a bent shaft shovel the amount of forward bending is less than that of a straight shovel. It should make sense, too. A bent shovel brings the blade the ground sooner than that of straight shovel (requiring you to bend less). A reduction in forward bending can decrease the load to your spine, which may help you bypass a low back injury.

Recognizing Injury

Back pain while shoveling develops in one of three ways. The first is traumatic. It leads with a scream that is simultaneous with you lifting the shovel. You’re going to want to see your primary within the next day. The second is the, “I feel some burning in my back or legs, but it’s not that bad.” You’re flirting with disaster. I would back off for a day and avoid sitting for 24 hours. The third is sneaky and can often be built off ignoring the advice from #2. Number three is present the next day. You can’t bend over and put your socks or shoes on.

Needless to say, you’re hoping to avoid all three of these scenarios; however, if you do find yourself in trouble my first recommendation is to avoid lifting, sitting, and bending altogether. You may want to try laying on your stomach (the lowest disc pressure position) in-lieu of sitting. Get in touch with your primary physician and find yourself a physical therapist that can help you.

To consult with a physical therapist, click the link below to schedule your free discovery visit at Buffalo Rehab Group.


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.
2. Sato, Katsuhiko, Shinichi Kikuchi, and Takumi Yonezawa. “In vivo intradiscal pressure measurement in healthy individuals and in patients with ongoing back problems.” Spine 24.23 (1999): 2468.
3. Ferguson SA, Marras WS, Waters TR. Quantification of back motion during asymmetric lifting. 1992. Ergonomics: 35(7); 845-859 International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 29 (2002) 319–330