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Extreme Shoveling: Make Loads Even Smaller, And Other Tips From Spine Expert

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My back aches just thinking about it: An additional foot of snow, possibly followed by rain in some areas to add more weight to each shovel-full. This is back-blowing territory, made all the more perilous by the need for speed, to shovel out before night's chill coats every snowy crenellation with ice.

So for back-saving tips, I turned to an expert: Dr. Carol Hartigan, a physiatrist and the medical director of the Spine Center and Spine Rehabilitation Program at New England Baptist Hospital. My personal takeaway: Smaller shovel-loads. Even smaller than you think you need. Slow down. Bit by bit. And if you possibly can, avoid the whole thing: Outsource. Borrow a snowblower. Or at least share the labor. Ignore all this wisdom at your own risk — the risk of weeks of misery. Our conversation, edited:

First, what's at stake: What are the most common shoveling injuries you see?

We basically see strains: People who've been shoveling, sweeping, clearing snow, breaking up ice, cleaning off the car. Usually it’s the low back but it can also be the neck and the mid-back.

And the worst?

Really just severe, acute back strain: Pulling, stretching, tearing of the muscles and the capsules around the joint and the ligaments causes release of chemicals that irritate the nerves and trigger inflammation and that gets to be a vicious cycle that feeds on itself, and then the muscles tense up and spasm, and then the blood doesn’t flow, and then we get cautious and guarded — those things happen. And there’s no easy way out of that — that’s a situation that has to run its course. It can take a day or two, a week or two, it can take up to eight weeks to resolve.

I really can't think of any ergonomic way to do that [lift a shovel full of snow four feet high.] I really can't.

Dr. Carol Hartigan

In terms of prevention, what do you most wish people knew?

• Snowblowers do help! Having a plow shovel the driveway, for people who are older, is not a bad idea if that’s an option. If people are shoveling themselves, using the right shovel — like a back shovel that has a curved handle — can minimize the back bending.

• Using your legs is a good idea.

• Turn with the snow to throw it, and try not to throw it really far away from the body — keep the shovel close to the body.

• Don’t try to shovel deep snow — like with the 24 inches we had last week — the whole entire depth of the snow at a time. Just do a few inches at a time.

• Split the job up with your family members. Don't let one person do it.

• Pace yourself.  Do a little, go inside, come back an hour later, as opposed to doing it all at once.

And specifically for today — it looks like it's going to be extreme shoveling, trying to put another foot of snow on top of walls that are already three or four feet high. What do you advise?

There’s no way around it being a very difficult and challenging situation. We're going to have to make our driveways a little less wide. Find new spots to put the snow. We want to be very careful to have on shoes with a good tread so we don't slip — we see injuries when people slip and fall and land on their butt and get a compression fracture. So we don’t want people slipping on the ice. But there’s no two ways about it — it’s going to be a difficult snowstorm  today.

What about the weight of the snow, with rain coming in some areas to make it heavier? Is there any rule of thumb about how heavy a shovel-full you should lift?

It’s better to do more lifts of less heavy shovel loads than trying to do it as quickly as possible with the least amount of maneuvers. It’s very personal to each of us. We're different sized people. We don’t want it to be super heavy, we want it to be like a medium intensity challenge.

And the height problem? If you have to lift snow up higher to get it onto a pile, does that pose special risks?

Absolutely — to the arms, the shoulders, the mid-back, the neck — that's all going to be affected. And then the reaching, the lifting: when we’re not holding a load close to our body we’re at more risk to have stress and strain delivered. So I really think we have to make the driveways narrower, we're going to have to find new spots to put the snow.

In terms of movement: If you need to get a shovel-full to four feet in height, is there any good way to do it?

I really can’t think of any ergonomic way to do that. It's one of those things where we’re stuck. I really can’t. Could we step up on a ladder and do it? Theoretically we could — a step stool or a bucket brigade of sorts...

So as we have to lift a load higher, it puts our mid-back, upper back, shoulders, arms and necks at higher risk of getting strained. So do we want our shovel loads even lighter if we get that high?

Absolutely, definitely lighter.

So just chip, chip, chip away... 

Yes, and take our time — though we do need to get it done before the rain and the freeze.

So should we try to use little shovels?

There are arguments to use a small shovel, even more like a digging shovel, but we don’t all have those — and using that curved shovel is good for the back. Just pick up less snow with each lift.

And just in case the worst happens, if you do get a strain, that generally means you need to rest it? 

Not complete bed-rest. We usually try to keep people as active as possible, as tolerated, to keep the blood flowing, and the oxygen and the nutrients flowing, and to clear away the inflammation with the circulation. So we usually have people do what we call 'relative rest' and then we have them use anti-inflammatories if they tolerate that, and apply ice to reduce the inflammation.

Readers, other smart shoveling tips? 

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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