As I watched the snow falling at my front door, I knew that shoveling was in my future. I had done this task countless times since we lived in Maryland, and knew that I would have to gather up my ski pants and long underwear to be warm enough to do the task without getting cold. Over the years, I’ve told many of my patients how to minimize the risk of back injury while shoveling, and as the Blizzard of 2016 dumped feet of snow in the East, I thought many members of The Spine Community might benefit from some simple suggestions on how to remove it safely.

First, be honest with yourself in regard to your overall general medical condition. If you have cardiovascular disease of any sort, you should consult with your physician before engaging in any strenuous physical activity. Remember, a snow shovel of fluffy snow weighs 5 pounds; a shovel of wet snow may weigh upwards of 20 pounds. If in doubt, don’t shovel. Instead, hire enterprising younger members of the family or neighborhood who can earn a fee.

If you have been physically active and believe yourself capable of doing heavy labor, get prepared. Remaining warm is important. Before going outside, engage in some gentle stretches. Layer clothes for adequate insulation, and wear waterproof gloves to protect your hands.

The general principles that protect your back while shoveling snow are simple:

  • Use your arms and legs, not your back to move snow.
  • Use a snow shovel that has a ninety degree angle in the handle; the angle allows you to shovel without bending your back.
  • When lifting, straighten your bent knees.
  • Carry the snow to its final resting place.
  • Use your arms to unweight the shovel straight ahead of you.

When moving the snow, do NOT twist your back to throw the snow off to the side; this is what I call “The Twist and Shout.” Twisting places the back at a mechanical disadvantage and at greater risk of injury of muscles or spinal joints. If the weight of the snow-filled shovel is too great to move safely, put it down. Instead, make more trips with a comfortable weight.

Doing the job with proper mechanics may prevent weeks of unnecessary back pain and muscle spasm. The goal is to have completed the task of shoveling with a minimum of soreness, or none at all.


Understanding Back Pain