For many of us in the United States, winter is upon us, and that means dealing with many seasonal health risks. For most people, colder temperatures signal the beginning of cold and flu season, so it is time to stock up on Vitamin C foods and practice more stringent hygiene care. Colder weather also means holiday meals, so many of us ramp up our exercise regimens to prevent an expanding waistline. Winter also brings snow and snow shoveling. This last chore sounds innocuous, but it can be surprisingly dangerous. Every year, almost 4.15 people in 100,000 suffer an injury or medical emergency related to snow shoveling.
Most Common Snow Shoveling Injuries
Almost two-thirds of these injuries occur among men, and about a quarter of these snow shoveling emergencies involve people aged 55 or older. The most common health conditions—or about 55 percent—that result include:
Most of these injuries are not serious, but about 34 percent of medical emergencies related to snow shoveling involve the lower back. A slip on a slick surface can cause a herniated disc or a spinal fracture that may cause health problems for months or years to come.
More Serious Injuries
Most importantly, however, something as physically exhausting as shoveling snow can put an enormous strain on your heart and cardiovascular system. One study published by Harvard Medical School estimates that almost 68,000 people in Canada died between 1981 and 2014 due to a heart attack from shoveling snow. More than 128,000 were admitted to hospitals due to chest pains during this period.
Heart attacks are merely one of the fatal consequences of a mishap involving snow shoveling. Many other deadly outcomes are possible including a cerebrovascular accident (CVA)—more commonly known as a stroke—or a serious concussion.
If you insist on shoveling the snow around your home, take precautions to avoid injury. After all, a CVA and orthopedic injury could put you in the hospital for days or weeks. These health conditions could also have long-term health consequences for many years to come.
Why Snow Shoveling Is So Dangerous
It is easy to assume that the gently falling snow is harmless, and while a few frozen flakes of water pose little risk, when there is accumulation, that risk is compounded many times over. It may seem like a good idea to get out of the house to clear some snow, but keep in mind the following:
- Snow is heavy—it hardly seems possible that floating snow can be heavy, but it is surprisingly so. Remember, that snow on the surface may be light because it is not compacted, but snow under a long storm is very dense and heavy. Moving this mass of snow and ice is made more difficult because it melts a little under pressure and forms icy bonds with the surroundings.
- Most people are out of shape—especially in the winter when we tend to stay inside, we lose muscle mass and stamina. When we engage in such a strenuous activity as shoveling snow, we overestimate our capacity for work.
- Snow shoveling is exhausting—shoveling snow may burn from 400 to 600 calories an hour. Eat well before starting and take frequent breaks to restore lost fluids. You may dehydrate more quickly than you realize in the dry, cold air.
- Shoveling relies on arm strength—unless you are a body builder, you are unlikely to have a lot of strength in your arms. Unfortunately, shoveling is a task that depends heavily on arm strength. This means you will tire more quickly and are at a greater risk of CVA and orthopedic injury.
- Cold strains our bodies—when our bodies get cold, they conserve heat by constricting blood vessels. This raises our blood pressure, setting us up for a heart attack or CVA. Furthermore, the cold air reduces blood flow to our lungs, meaning we get less oxygen into our system.
Sensible Ways to Prevent CVA and Orthopedic Injury
It isn’t enough to just know that shoveling snow is dangerous to your health. You should also take sensible steps to prevent major medical emergencies like heart attack, CVA and orthopedic injury.
- Consult with your doctor—before you engage in any major form of exercise which includes shoveling snow, you should discuss your health conditions with your doctor. You should understand the risks you are taking, especially if you have conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease. Your doctor can recommend the most appropriate way to engage in heavy, physical labor.
- Learn proper technique—in addition to learning to lift with your legs instead of your back, you should learn effort-saving strategies. If you are doing only a limited area, then you should push the snow rather than lift and move. Also, clear snow in layers rather than all the way to the ground.
- Dress appropriately—even if you expect to sweat, you should dress warmly. If you dress in layers, you can heat and cool yourself as you go. Good footwear is very important; boots with good tread to prevent slippage is ideal.
- Stretch out—before you begin shoveling, warm up by stretching. This will promote blood circulation and limit any initial shock to your system.
- Use a snow blower—if conditions allow it, use a snow blower instead of a shovel. Although using a snow blower can also by hard on your body, it is less so than manually removing snow.
- Remove small batches—if possible, don’t allow snow to accumulate. If you expect a long period of snowfall, remove accumulation while it is six inches high or less.
- Hire professionals—it may not be the cheapest option but hiring professional snow removers may help preserve your health, which should be worth more than a few dollars. Besides, you may find that a professional team provides a higher quality outcome making it easier to maintain your home and auto.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
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