January 28, 2013

Shovelling Snow Without Strain

By Chloe Metzgar
Performance Physical Therapy

A white winter doesn’t have to cost you an achy back

With the first snow fall, the to do list looms large. With that in mind, it may seem impossible to keep up with snow removal, de-icing sidewalks, clearing a path for our four- legged friends, and of course, the mail man. Consequently, snowy days end up a whirl-wind of chores that can take a toll on your body.

“The problem is that people haven’t done these motions in eight to nine months, and they’re just wiped out at the end of the day,” said Fellowship trained Physical Therapist, Tina Howell. “Being out of shape for these chores can make for many sore muscles and aches/pains.

Howell, owner of Performance Physical Therapy, lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She recalls, “In the winter of 2007-2008, we received 18-20 inches of snow per night. Many people over the age of 50 experienced injuries, including low back pain, rotator cuff strains/sprains, falls and occasionally cardiac problems. Snow removal can take its toll on bodies at any age. Overdoing to catch up can result in injury.”
Howell tries to teach people, “to be realistic about what you can accomplish and to listen to your bodies.”

Tina Howell, from Performance Physical Therapy in Bettendorf, says “We will see a rush of clients when the winter season gets underway. In the hopes of preventing some of these snow related injuries, she’s offers the following advice.

Howell’s focus is teaching clients how to stay strong and how to efficiently perform tasks. “I want people to do what they want, safely and without pain,” she said. Howell stresses the importance of body mechanics and alignment. In teaching the mechanics of motion, Howell emphasizes creating a base of support so that people will be more stable as they begin their tasks. She also advises that people ensure correct alignment. Movement is initiated by the back foot in the base of support. By coaching people to make these subtle shifts, she gives clients personal strategies to have less pain.

For instance, she said that to avoid back and neck pain when shoveling snow, people should initiate movement from the back foot (in base of support) to generate a forward motion, keeping their bodies in alignment. Then, you will need to hinge your hips – getting your bottom back to counter balance and allow your legs to generate power instead of your back muscles. efficient motion will be demonstrated completely at the seminar.

Retraining your body to be more aware throughout your daily tasks can prevent many injuries and maintain strength in your legs. You want to ensure you are in the optimal posture to perform the task without pain or injury. The lack of awareness is why many injuries happen when lifting lighter objects – picking up your glove that just fell on the ground. “People think about doing lifting right when an object is heavy, but usually don’t when something is light.” The goal is to get in the habit of being efficient each time.

Howell also advocates learning several different, efficient ways of performing a task to avoid repetitive injuries. She recommends looking at what you can change with your own body, not only so you can spend less money on healthcare, but also for your own longevity. Investing in ergonomic shovels, so you don’t have to bend and stoop as much, and using foot gear that has gripping surfaces are a few easy suggestions.

Tina Howell of Performance Physical Therapy has these suggestions as we approach the height of our winter season, when the risk for injury is greatest.

• Use proper body mechanics for all aspects of shoveling. It’s more involved than just “use your legs” and may be best taught by a knowledgeable physical therapist.
• Treat your outdoor activities as a sport. Do a warm up before heading outdoors and a cool down afterward. These should include proper exercises and stretches to address specific muscles used while shoveling as well as “practicing” the proper body mechanics you should use.
• Know when to ask for help. If someone is available to help you with something that might be too much to lift, push or pull, ask for help to decrease stress and strain to your body.
• Take breaks during your outdoor activities to check in with your body. If you notice certain body parts are sore or strained, stop and stretch. You may resume activities later. If your breathing is labored and talking is difficult, stop. If in addition, you feel your hear is racing or you have chest pressure/pain; seek medical attention.
• RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. If you do sustain an injury, apply this standard treatment and call a certified physical therapist or your doctor.
• Don’t settle for pain. Don’t have the attitude that pain is normal with snow removal. Often, so much can be done to ensure there is no pain or stress/strain if identified and treated by the appropriate health care professional.