How to prevent back pain from shoveling snow using these 5 steps

by | Dec 21, 2022

Have you ever noticed that snowflakes glisten as they fall from the sky?  They are light and fluffy and “sit on our nose and eyelashes”.  But…..when they hit the ground and keep falling hour after hour …. we suddenly have many little white mountains all around us.  And then we all know it’s time to start shoveling our walkways and driveways.

I wanted to write this blog now BEFORE our first snowfall – why?  So that I can share some information that could help many people avoid having back pain after shoveling.  After all – prevention is always so important for any injury.  I have treated hundreds of patients who have spent hours shoveling and I share this information with them so they will be able to take care of themselves for the rest of the winter season. 

In this post I will explain why your back hurts after shoveling, what are the most common injuries from shoveling, and finally I will share how you can prevent back pain from shoveling snow by following these 5 steps.

How to protect your feet

Why does my lower back hurt after shoveling?

Most of us will run out after the first snowfall, pull out the shovel buried deep in the garage – place it on the ground and start pushing with all our might.  Then we lift up the shovel that is now heavy and we twist quickly to throw that snow off to the side.  We repeat this process over and over as the snow piles up slowly on one side of us.  Seems kind of harmless but what exactly is going on in our body to get this job done?  Our back muscles are working hard to lengthen when we bend and to shorten when we stand up.  Our core abdominal muscles may or may not be working.  And our back/rib muscles are working hard to twist over and over with the weight of the snow.  This intense activity repeated over and over can result in something as simple as a strain to any of these muscles or may result in increased pressure and/or irritation to the disc/nerves coming out of our lower spine.  


What are the most common snow shoveling injuries?

The Facts: 

  • A 17 year study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine showed that on average more than 11, 000 adults and children are seen at a hospital each year after shoveling snow  (Watson, D. American Journal of Emergency Medicine, January 2011;vol 29: pp 11-17)
  • Injuries include: back strains, torn mussels, sprained ligaments,  broken bones, head injuries, heart problems
  • If you load a shovel with 5kg of snow every 5 seconds you will move a load of over 70 kg in one minutes – continue for 15 minutes and you have shoveled 1000 kg of now
  • Elderly are more likely to fall and sustain fractures and other serious injuries
  • Often we try to get the shoveling done  in a hurry – we need to get to work or school and this can lead to injuries as we move

How to prevent back pain from shoveling snow by using these 5 steps:

  1. Pick a good shovel: Not all shovels are the same!!  You must choose a shovel that matches your body type and size.  Choose a shovel that is lightweight 1.5 kg (plastic or aluminum), has an adjustable height (the handle reaches your chest) and ergonomically curved shaft, choose a D shaped handle
  2. Shovel straight ahead:  When you lift and twist your spine you put a great deal of stress on the discs and nerves of your low back spine.  Pushing the snow as far as you can rather than lifting it and walking to put it someplace. Turn your feet to the direction you are throwing – remember not to twist at the waist and not to throw the snow over your shoulder.
  3. Winter non-slip boots: What you have on your feet makes a big difference.  Wearing slip resistant boots will decrease your chance of slipping on ice that may be under the snow.
  4. Pace yourself! Shoveling at a steady pace and taking frequent breaks and drinking warm liquids. You could shovel small loads frequently.
  5. Warm up your muscles indoors before you go out to shovel.  (Link to back exercises here) Stretch your shoulders, back and legs.  Dress in layers to keep your muscles warm and allow flexible movement.
How to prevent back pain from shoveling snow using these 5 steps

We hope you have learned about how snow shoveling may not look very strenuous but can injure your muscles, ligaments, bones and cause you a great deal of back pain. If you have tried rest and stretching and the pain continues then its time to seek professional help. 

What else can I do if I continue to have pain and limited movement?

Make an appointment with your friendly neighborhood Physiotherapist and/or Chiropractor in Richmond Hill at 16th Avenue Chiropractic and Physiotherapy.

Call us at 905-709-7147 or email us at info@chirophysio16th.com

  • We can help you with pain by using ultrasound/laser/electricity
  • We can help by mobilizing your joints using manual therapy
  • We can help by giving you customized arch support also known as orthotics
  • We can help you strengthen and stretch your muscles
  • We can help you get back to doing the things you love to do

We hope you take some time to warm up before you pick up your shovel.  Taking breaks and pacing your shoveling may save you from low back pain later.  Stay safe , stay warm and enjoy the winter season!!! 

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What should I do if I strain my back shoveling snow?

Answer: First you should give your back muscles a chance to relax with some rest for the first day or two.  Avoid heavy lifting and repetitive bending and twisting.  For the first 24 hours you may want to put some ice on the area if your muscles are in spasm.  Then you can put heat on for up to 10 minutes several times throughout the day.  You may also find certain positions are more comfortable depending on which muscles have been strained.  So find your most comfortable position.  Gentle stretching of the injured muscles when you can tolerate it will prevent stiffness.  

Question: When do I need to see a doctor for my back pain after shoveling?
Answer: If you have any of the following symptoms you should act quickly

  • Numbness in the groin or genital areas with loss of bladder or bowel control – go directly to an emergency department
  • Sudden weakness of the foot, being unable to lift your foot – go directly to an emergency room department
  • Severe back pain with or without leg pain that is getting worse – go directly to an emergency department 

Question: Can I use a snowblower instead of shoveling?
Answer: Snowblowers can put less stress on your low back than using a shovel.  However some snowblowers can be difficult to store and remove for some people.  Either way make sure to use the strength of your legs to push while keeping your back straight and knees slightly bent. 

How to prevent back pain from shoveling snow using these 5 steps

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Call us at 905-709-7147 or email us at info@chirophysio16th.com