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Shovelling snow kills my back. How do I fix it?

The question: My back always kills me after I shovel the driveway. I think I'm lifting with my legs too much, but what can I do to recover between snowfalls and protect myself from hurting myself even more?

The answer: Having grown up in Edmonton, shoveling snow was a daily task in the winter (and some springs too!), so I understand the aches and pains you are experiencing. Shoveling is not an easy task, and when combined with frigid cooler temperatures, it can take quite a toll on our bodies. If your back is already sensitive, or you haven't been exercising regularly, it's fairly common to wake up after shoveling with aches and pains.

To recover in between shovels, it's important to take a rest from other heavy lifting. You should gently stretch your sore muscles, consider anti-inflammatory medications (topical or oral) and use warm compresses for the tender areas. But with our Canadian winters, the next snowfall is never far away, making it even more vital to take simiple preventive action to protect your back from further injury.

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First: Choose the right tool. Just like how we choose the right chair for our desks, pick a shovel that will be a good fit and minimize your injury risk. Finding a lightweight shovel with an adjustable handle length will help reduce stretching in your back and decrease the overall weight that you are moving.

Before starting to shovel, warm up and wear the appropriate clothing to keep your muscles warm. Cold, stiff muscles are at higher risk of injury than warm, supple ones. Layer your clothing and consider taking a short walk outside, or march in place indoors, to warm up before you start shoveling.

Now that your body is prepared, focus on using the right technique. It's tempting to get it over with to get out of the cold, but rushing can lead to injury. Shovel small amounts of snow instead of larger heavier loads over a period of time. Take breaks regularly to let your body recover. Don't overexert yourself.

When shoveling, start by bending at the hips – not at the low back. Practice this technique by leaning forward and balancing your weight over your feet, sort of like doing a squat exercise. When you begin to lift the snow, do so from your legs by rising from the knees and hips. The muscles in your legs are generally stronger than those in your back and arms, so let your legs take more of the load.

Try to keep your spine in a neutral position. When lifting heavy objects, you tend to curve your back in a way – like a cat arching its back – that can cause strain. A neutral spine is maintained by engaging both the abdominal and low-back mucles to stabilize the lower back from rounding out.

All too often, I have patients come in after falling and injuring themselves during shoveling. Make sure you wear proper boots with good traction, and consider putting down some sand or gravel to protect yourself from the ice that lurks under the snow.

If you have any more severe symptoms, such as back pain that persists despite rest, or pain that radiates down your legs, seek care to ensure that you haven't done any other damage.

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If you have a history of heart disease, have had back injuries in the past or are out of shape, check in with your doctor before starting to shovel. In this case, the best option may be to try and find someone more fit to help with the shoveling so that you can keep safe and healthy through the winter months.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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