Every season brings unique activities that require us to perform some physical activity we may not want to do but have no choice. As I look outside right now it is snowing here on the eastside and that usually means a bit of shoveling that will need to be done. This seasonal activity is a, “I have to..” activity of daily living (ADLs), rather than ADLs we want to do. Therefore, let’s talk about shoveling snow since that time of year is upon some of us, though hopefully on its way out! Of course, if snow is not an issue based on where you live, this information can also be applied to gardening, digging a hole or some other yard related shoveling activity.
First, a few facts that help us appreciate why back pain is so common when we shovel:
1. When we bend over, approximately 2/3rds of our body weight is being lifted in addition to what we’re lifting. Hence, a 180# person has to lift 120# of body weight every time he or she bends over.
2. A 5# weight equals 50# to our back when it is held out in front of us – consider the 10-20# weight on the end of a shovel!
3) Our legs are much stronger than our back and arms. If a person can bench press 300#, they can usually leg press 500# – almost 2x more weight. Yet, most of us use our arms, not our legs, when shoveling.
4) Most of us bend over using poor technique, lift the shovel with the arms and back (not the legs), and rapidly extend and twist the back when we throw the substance from the shovel – 3 bad things!
5. To make it all worse we do the same things over and over and over again, with bodies that are not in proper shape to be doing the activity in the first place. So, what do you do about it?
One way to prevent injuries, especially to the low back is to avoid the activities that injure it in the first place. For those of us who can’t hire the neighborhood kid to shovel the driveway here are some basic tips. The first fact is, we can’t change the fact that 2/3rds of our body weight is above our waist. What we can change right now is just how much you load up that shovel with snow or dirt. Secondly, always bend down using your strong leg muscles, not your back. This reduces the strain that is put on the back while lifting. Take multiple breaks and switch sides so you don’t “beat up” the same muscle groups repeatedly.
If you do hurt your back – using an analogy of a cut on your skin -avoid picking at the cut so it can heal. If your back starts to hurt after shoveling, take a break, rest, ice, and then do some gentle stretches- DO NOT go back out and start shoveling again! Some wise considerations for shoveling include warming up before starting, staying “in shape” by regular exercise throughout the year, maintaining a good nutritional diet and getting enough sleep.