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Snow Shovelers

ALEXANDRIA, VA — With weather experts predicting a repeat of last winter’s colder-than-normal temperatures and heavy snowfalls in many parts of the U.S., the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is concerned about reducing the number of injuries that may occur from shoveling snow.

Snow shoveling is a repetitive activity that can cause muscle strain to the lower back and shoulders, especially if a person is out of condition and does not lift properly, says Michael T. Cibulka, PT, MHS, OCS, president of APTA's Orthopaedic Section. In fact, back injuries due to snow shoveling can happen to anyone, not just older adults. People between the ages of 20 and 50 are generally more likely than older individuals to injure their backs because they may not be aware that they are out of condition, Cibulka says.

Tips to Avoid Winter Back Injuries

Cibulka suggests the following tips for avoiding back injuries from snow shoveling:

  • If possible, wait until the afternoon to shovel. Many disc injuries occur in the morning when there is increased fluid pressure in the disc.
  • Lift smaller loads of snow, rather than heavy shovelfuls. Take care to bend your knees and lift with your legs rather than with your back.
  • Use a shovel with a shaft that lets you keep your back straight while lifting. A short shaft will cause you to bend more to lift the load. Using a shovel that's too long makes the weight at the end heavier.
  • Because the spine cannot tolerate twisting as well as it can other movements, it is important to avoid excessive twisting and forward bending. Instead, you should bend your knees and keep your back as straight as possible so you are lifting with your legs. Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow to prevent the low back from twisting. This will help avoid the "next-day back fatigue" experienced by many shovelers.
  • Take frequent breaks when shoveling. Stand up straight and walk around periodically to extend the lower back. Standing extension exercises will help reverse the excessive forward bending that occurs while shoveling: stand straight and tall, place your hands toward the back of your hips and bend backward slightly for several seconds.

With proper precautions and the correct snow-shoveling technique, injuries to the shoulders and lower back can be avoided.

If you or someone you know has back pain, consult a licensed physical therapist. Physical therapists, or PTs, have a unique body of knowledge that promotes optimal health and function through the application of scientific principles to prevent, identify, assess, correct, and alleviate acute or prolonged movement dysfunction. At a minimum, physical therapists hold bachelor's degrees in physical therapy, and nearly half hold master's or doctoral degrees.

The American Physical Therapy Association is a national professional organization representing more than 64,000 members. Its goal is to foster advancements in physical therapy practice, research, and education.