5 easy ways to develop back pain from snow shoveling:

  1. Knees straight, back bent.   Lift with sudden, sharp motions.
  2. Make the same movements over and over without variation.
  3. Start shoveling without warming up.
  4. Keep your feet fixed and twist at your waist when you toss the snow.
  5. Use a long handled shovel with a heavy metal blade.
  6. Sit in a recliner for a long time after shoveling.

Obviously this list is a joke, but hopefully it caught your attention!  What is not a joke is the pattern we see this time of year in our patients, who hurt themselves shoveling. Many of them should remember to do exactly the opposite of this list. With that in mind, I’d like to break down each item with an explanation of how not to do it:

1. Always use your hips and keep your spine in a neutral position when you shovel. Your legs are meant to be your primary mover, not your back. More than anything else, people need to use their butts rather than their backs when they lift. Smooth movements rather than sudden, jerking movements will keep you out of trouble. Sometimes it may be as easy as pushing snow to the edge of your driveway with your knee against the shovel and not bending over at all. At that point you might be able to use a snowblower, if you have one, to clear the snow off of the drive.

2. Instead of always lifting with one foot forward and the same hand down on the shovel, switch sides and hands when you shovel. It will reduce the stress on your body and your will develop strength in new areas. I had a friend who viewed shoveling his driveway as a workout and would shovel one way down the driveway and switch when he went up, alternating his stance and grip on each side.

3. We know we should warm up before we exercise. Snow shoveling is no different. Warm up by walking the driveway, lifting your arms out the side and performing squats to get your legs ready.  Shoveling is a physically demanding activity that we shouldn’t just jump into without preparing our bodies first.

4. Keeping your feet fixed and twisting at the waist when you throw puts torsional load on your discs, stretches your ligaments, and asks your muscles to manage an awkward load.  At some point one or several of those structures may fail. If you plan to do this, I will give you our number because you will need to see someone to help with your back pain! Instead, please pivot your feet and shoulders so that everything is facing the same direction when you toss the snow. Better yet, use a snowblower. Or even better yet, have someone else shovel for you!

5. The longer the handle and heavier the blade, the more stress you place on your back. Ergonomic handles and light weight blades, as long as they are rigid enough to handle the snow, will reduce the strain you experience. Using proper body mechanics is still more important than the type of shovel you use.

6. If you slump into a recliner immediately after shoveling, without generating movement of your back in an opposite direction (extension), you add to the load on your spine. Take a few minutes as you are admiring your clean drive way or sidewalk and bend backwards. This will offset the load on your spine. Think of it like celebrating a touchdown: Arms in the air, reaching back. Your spine will love you for it.

If you have concerns or questions about protecting your back please contact us. We would love to hear from you. Or if you have a funny story about your snow shoveling experience, send us an email.

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Physical Therapist at Freedom Physical Therapy Services
Todd Pratte is a 1988 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received his manual therapy certification from The University of St. Augustine in 1997. Todd specializes in treating total knee replacements and rotator cuff injuries.