As I sit here waiting for my third dose of aspirin to kick in after shoveling the product of the post-Christmas blizzard of 2010, I am anticipating the predictable influx of patients into our Emergency Room with a variety of snow shoveling related issues. In 2007, more than 118,000 people were treated in medical settings for injuries which occurred during snow removal. Although in an earlier column we discussed issues related to cold weather, there are a number of specific snow and shoveling concerns which are worth reviewing.
Safe shoveling begins with a basic question—should you even be shoveling at all? This is a strenuous, aerobic activity, and is exacerbated by the stress put on your system by the cold weather itself. If you are over 40 years old, or have conditions such as heart disease, hypertension or diabetes, speak with your primary care physician to get advice. There are plenty of teenagers in most neighborhoods who would like to earn a few dollars, and an unofficial handshake for winter shoveling coverage may be a "win-win" situation.
If you are going to proceed, several preparatory steps need to be followed. Make sure you are well hydrated with water or a non-caffeinated beverage (caffeine can elevate your heart rate, which is already quickened by the cold and the exercise). Dress warmly with multiple layers—light, water-repellent materials are the best. Make sure your head and ears are covered, your socks are warm and you have mittens or gloves. Wear boots with soles which are slip-resistant.
Use a shovel that picks up a quantity of snow that is not too heavy. Plastic shovels are lighter than metal ones, and snow is less likely to stick to them. Start slowly, space your hands on the shovel to maximize your leverage and try to push the snow instead of lifting. If lifting is required, squat with your legs apart, knees bent and back straight. From this position use your legs for strength, and do not bend at the waist. A common error is to throw snow over the shoulder or to the side; this motion puts excessive stress on your back.
Take a break every 30 minutes to go inside for 15 minutes, warm up and drink fluids!
For those of you lucky enough to have a snow blower, the rest of us are jealous! However, be careful; 16,000 snow blower related injuries occur each year, some of which are very serious. Never, ever put your fingers in the snow blower, and always read the instruction manual, with particular attention to the safety hazards section.
For more information, check out the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website at: www.orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00060