With snowfall expected to continue into the evening hours on Thursday, many of us in the Boston area will be out clearing a foot or more of snow from our driveways and sidewalks come Friday morning. For some people, there’s nothing like a vigorous hour or two of snow shoveling to make them feel alive. But don’t let the rosy cheeks and pleasantly sore muscles fool you: shoveling heavy snow can be hazardous to your health.
Muscle, ligament and tendon injuries are the most common shovel-related injuries that land folks in the emergency room, according to a 2011 study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine that looked at 17 years of ER data across the country. While cardiac-related injuries accounted for only 7 percent of these visits, they were generally the most serious.
“We see more heart attacks in our practice around this time of year and it seems to be directly related to snow shoveling,” said Dr. Michael Levy, chief of vascular medicine at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. “I’m a big proponent of having help with shoveling”
People don’t realize the stress they’re putting on their heart and other parts of their body when lifting heavy snow, according to Levy. “The average person wouldn’t go to the gym for the first time and try to bench press 200 pounds. But unless you’re extremely fit, when you shovel, especially if it’s wet snow, you’re doing exactly that,” he explained.
Add artery-constricting temperatures to the equation and the risk only increases, said Dr. Levy. Both men and women need to be mindful of the risk, and especially middle-aged and older individuals who do not exercise regularly and have a history of cardiac problems.
If you’re not able to avoid shoveling by hiring a professional or using a snow blower, the following precautions are recommended by the American Heart Association:
- Take frequent breaks and pay attention to how your body feels during those breaks.
- Don’t eat a big meal or drink alcoholic beverages before or soon after shoveling. Eating a large meal can put extra strain on your heart, and alcohol may cause you to underestimate the strain on your body.
- Use a smaller shovel and push the snow instead of lifting it when possible.
- Be aware of the warning signs of a heart attack and call 911 immediately if you suspect you’re having one. (Keep your cell phone with you while shoveling.) Symptoms include pain or discomfort in the chest, arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath; cold sweat; nausea and lightheadedness. For men and women, the most common sign of a heart attack is chest pain or discomfort. Women are more likely, however, to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting and back or jaw pain.
- Dress in layers of warm clothing and wear a hat to prevent hypothermia, which can lead to heart failure.
Talk to your Lahey Health physician before shoveling, especially if you have a medical condition, do not exercise regularly or are middle-aged or older.