Physiotherapy Recommendations for tackling the snow on your driveway!

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It’s that time of year again when the snow is coming down and piling up on our driveways.  Add a bit of moisture into the air and suddenly those tiny nearly-weightless snowflakes become heavy weights stacking up on your shovel!  Although most people wouldn’t believe it, snow shovelling can be a strenuous physical activity that leads to a number of injuries each winter ranging from simple muscle strains right up to broken bones (from slips and falls) as well as heart attacks.  A number of snow shovelling injuries seen each year are also caused simply by being struck by the snow shovel!

We have a number of tips you should take into consideration in order to avoid strain on your body and to escape any potential injuries when attacking a snow drift.

Firstly, as with any job, assess the situation first and decide the best place for you to put your snow. Try to move the snow the shortest distance possible. When feasible, push the snow along the ground first so it piles up closer to where you are going to put it, then lift it to where it goes rather than repetitively lifting and carrying the snow.

If you don’t have to lift it and can leave it in a pile on the side, leave it!  When pushing or lifting snow it is necessary to use good posture.  This means squarely facing the snow you are about to lift and keeping your feet wide.  When bending, do so at your hips and knees, while keeping your back in a neutral position in order to use your leg muscles and save strain to your back. As you lift, tighten your stomach muscles (core muscles) as this provides a natural brace to your torso.  Keep the load relatively light and as close into your body as possible.

Avoid twisting your back when dumping or tossing the snow, rather move your feet so they face the intended pile.

Grip the shovel with one hand on the handle and the other nearer to the blade. This will assist you in keeping the load close to your body when lifting and will give you more control with the weight on the shovel.

Finally, keep well hydrated while shovelling, take frequent breaks and pace yourself.  If possible, shovel in shifts as the snow falls rather than waiting until a heavy pile has built up.  Get help with the shovelling! If you have a family, make it a fun family activity, or chat with your neighbours in order to divide the load.  If you feel any stress on your body, or worse, if you feel any cardiovascular warning signs such as lightheadedness, sudden shortness of breath, or chest pain/tightness, heed these warnings and stop immediately to get emergency assistance. If you regularly need to shovel a lot of snow, you may want to trade the snow shovel in for a snow blower, but beware that snow blowing comes with its own set of injury risks.  Or, if you are elderly, have a pre-existing medical condition, or are not in good enough physical shape to regularly shovel, there is always the option of hiring someone else to do the job.

The most common snow shovelling injuries include:

Stretching is essential when heading out to tackle the accumulating snow.  Snow shovelling accounts for many injuries each season seen both in the local emergency department as well as at Active Care Physiotherapy. Therefore the snow removal job needs to be taken seriously and treated like any other physical activity you are about to engage in.  A stretching routine can help you avoid a snow shovelling injury. Stretching before and after shovelling helps to minimize muscle imbalances, prevent injury, and improve your ability to shovel for longer periods.  The following stretching program is designed for people who do not have any current injuries or individual stretching needs.  If you have an injury, or a specific mechanical imbalance that may be inhibiting your ability to shovel, your Active Care Physiotherapy physiotherapist can design a specific stretching program for you.

When is the best time to stretch? When your muscles are warm and relaxed!  For optimum performance you should stretch after you have done a general body warm up of about 5-10 minutes. A brisk walk around your house or yard to get the heart rate and body temperature up can do the trick. Use this time to assess the snow situation and figure out the best plan for removing the accumulating snow.

Dynamic stretches are used prior to shovelling and are essential in preparing your muscles for the powerful movements required to push, lift and toss the snow.  If the weather is warm enough, the pre-shovelling stretches should be done in in a safe non-slip area outside, or can be done inside your garage or entry-way after your warm up.  Be sure not to let your body cool down between warming it up and starting the shovelling or you will become chilled.  Static stretches, on the other hand, are more useful to improve your overall flexibility and are most effectively done after you have finished the shovelling and are back in the warm house.

Rules for Dynamic Stretching:
  • Warm up your body first, then stretch while your muscles are still warm and do not let your body cool down before engaging in the task at hand.
  • Move through your range of movement, keeping control of the movement with your muscles.  Do not allow momentum to control the movement by "flinging" or "throwing" your body parts around.
  • You may feel light resistance in your muscles, but you should never feel pain during a stretch.
  • Start with slow, low intensity movements, and gradually progress to full-speed movements through range of motion. Complete these motions for several repetitions (10-15 times.)
Rules for Static Stretching:
  • Be sure to stretch while the muscles are still warm after shovelling.
  • Slowly take your muscles to the end of their range.  You will feel slight resistance in the muscle, but you should never feel pain during a stretch.
  • Hold the stretch in a static position.  Do not bounce.
  • Maintain each stretch for 20-30 seconds.  Repeat each stretch 3-4 times.

Essential Stretches for Snow Shovelling:

These muscles are the key muscles used when snow shovelling.  Don't forget to stretch both sides.  The stretching program shown below will take about 10-12 minutes to complete.

Dynamic Stretches:

Arm Swings
Shoulder Swings
Wrist Circles
leg Swings Forward and Back
Back Rotation Stretch
Static Stretches
Neck Stretch
Posterior Shoulder Stretch
standing Back Extension Stretch
Hamstring stretch
Calf Stretch-Gastrocnemius
Quadriceps stretch
Hip flexor stretch
Wrist Extensors
wrist Flexor