Snow Shoveling Tips That Can Help Save Your Back

Baby, it’s cold outside – and there’s probably a bunch of snow out there too. There’s a good chance you’ll have to shovel at some point this winter, even if you own a snow blower or you pay someone to do it for you.

It’s easy to hurt yourself shoveling between all of the bending and heavy lifting, especially if you haven’t kept your body in shape throughout the year by doing regular aerobic and muscle strengthening exercises, and stretching. If you’re not in shape, make sure you’re extra careful when you shovel.

Every winter, thousands of people visit the hospital for sprains and strains, bumps, bruises, cuts and broken bones sustained while shoveling snow. Most of the injuries are to the lower back and shoulder areas.

What You Can Do to Shovel Snow Safer

1. Warm up your muscles before you start. Shoveling snow is a form of exercise. Stretch your muscles, especially your legs and shoulders.  For example stretches, check out this guide. Don’t forget you need to stretch after you’re done shoveling too.

2. Use the right shovel; it can make a very big difference.  A small and lightweight shovel reduces the amount you lift each time. Pushing the snow is safer than lifting it. A shovel with a shorter handle can make dumping the snow easier, while a longer handle can be better for pushing it. Depending on the area you have to shovel, it might be a good investment to buy more than one type of shovel.

3. Maintain good body mechanics.  Try to push the snow when possible. When you have to lift it, keep the load lighter and make sure your hips and shoulders are squarely facing the shovel.  Bend your hips and knees – keep your back straight – and lift using your legs. Don’t toss the snow to the side once you’ve lifted it. Instead, try to dump it or toss it directly in front of you. This will help you avoid twisting your back.

4. Start shoveling early during a snowfall and pace yourself. It’s better to remove small amounts of snow often compared to lifting heavy loads later on. If the snow is deep, remove it in layers. Take a break every 10-15 minutes or when you start feeling overworked or winded. Use a few minutes on your break to stretch your arms, back, and shoulders.

  • Tip: When you start shoveling, clean a strip down the center of your driveway first. Then, shovel from the center to one of the sides, and then do the other. This way, you push and lift less snow compared to going the entire width of your driveway.

5. Keep your feet on the ground. Wear boots with good traction or add snow cleats to avoid falls. Thrown down salt or sand on any areas that are icy before you shovel them.

What to Do If You Hurt Your Back

Unfortunately, even if you’re careful shoveling, it’s still possible to hurt your back. If you do feel back pain after shoveling, here are some steps you can take to try and ease the pain:

  • Stop shoveling.
  • Apply ice packs intermittently for no more than 20 minutes at a time to the injured area to cut inflammation and swelling. Wrap the ice in a towel or some other covering to protect your skin from ice burn.
  • Use any over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications like ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin for relieving pain and inflammation.
  • After a few days, try using heat to ease stiffness.

Usually the pain should get better in a couple of days to a few weeks. See your doctor if your pain:

  • Gets progressively worse,
  • Becomes intolerable,
  • Starts shooting from your buttock/hip down to one of your legs, or
  • Persists for longer than four to six weeks

To help your doctor better diagnose your back pain, read this article.

Stay Safe Out There

Shoveling light-to-moderate snow for 15 or 20 minutes can be a good form of exercise. But when the snow is heavy or it’s icy outside, it can become a dangerous activity. Prepare your body for it, take your time, and pay attention to your shoveling technique to avoid injury.

Meet the Author

Mustafa Farooque, MD is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and fellowship trained in musculoskeletal spine and sports medicine at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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