A 45-year-old Quad-City area man was shoveling snow one winter day when he began to feel some pain in his right side.

Shrugging it off, he finished the job and laid down to rest, only to feel the pain return. Shortly thereafter, he was rushed to a hospital emergency room where a heart test found significant cardiac damage that had to be repaired immediately, Dr. Nilesh Mehta said. 

That type of scene that plays out every winter after Quad-City residents tackle snow-removal jobs, said Mehta, who is with Trinity Health Associates in Davenport. 

“When shoveling snow, it does not take long to get the heart rate up,” he said.

A significant number of injuries are caused every year by shoveling snow or using a snowblower. The tasks annually send an average of more than 11,000 adults and children to hospitals, according to a 17-year study published by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 

There also are about 5,700 emergency room-related injuries each year that are associated with snowblowers themselves, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports.

 

Just don’t shovel

Elderly persons are advised, simply, not to shovel snow and to avoid walking in deep snow. Older people should plan now to hire someone else to shovel the snow off their walks and driveway, suggested John Holton, the director of the Illinois Department on Aging. 

The strain from the cold and hard labor could cause a heart attack, he said, and sweating in frigid weather can lead to a chill or even hypothermia.

But the most common problems cited in the report that studied snow-shoveling injuries and medical emergencies in the United States from 1990 to 2006 were:

- Overworked muscles and being hit with a shovel.

- Muscle, ligament, tendon, soft-tissue and lower-back injuries.

- Cuts and broken bones, most likely to the hands and arms.

- Heart-related problems. Those represented 7 percent of the injuries, but all deaths in the study were due to heart problems.

 

A new shovel?

This might be the year to invest in a new snow shovel, as the basic shovel design hasn’t changed much since it was invented late in the 19th century.

A curved-shaft shovel can help lower the risk of muscle injury, according to Clay Kuethe, a chiropractor at Premier Chiropractic in Davenport. Aim to push the snow along the ground and don’t lift it, if possible.

For snowblowers, it’s best when you push from your midsection — and not so far in front of you that it causes back strain. Try to keep good posture while pushing the machine and avoid twisting or turning, Kuethe said.

The chiropractor teaches a class on safe shoveling at his office. 

The best advice, however, is to prepare for winter tasks all year long, said Mehta, the Trinity physician. Exercise daily so that shoveling snow doesn’t strain unused or underused muscles. 

“Know your limitations,” he added. “No one knows your health better than you do.”

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