From Our 2011 Archives

Snow Shoveling Injures Thousands Each Year

Back Injuries, Fractures, and Heart Problems Are Among the Risks From Shoveling Snow

By Kelli Miller Stacy
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 20, 2011 -- Next time you are faced with the daunting task of shoveling snow, consider this: The task sends on average more than 11,000 adults and children to the hospital every year.

A new 17-year study published in this month's American Journal of Emergency Medicine details the most common health hazards associated with shoveling snow. Snow shoveling can sometimes lead to bad backs, broken bones, head injuries, and even deadly heart problems.

"Not only is the heart's workload increased due to shoveling snow, but cold temperatures also add to the chances of a heart attack in at-risk individuals," study researcher Gary Smith, MD, DrPH, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio, says in a news release.

Common Snow Shoveling Injuries

The research team looked at snow shoveling injuries and medical emergencies in the U.S. from 1990 to 2006 using information from a national database. During that time, about 195,000 people in the U.S. were treated in a hospital emergency room for a snow shoveling injury.

Among the study findings:

  • Overworking your muscles, falling, and being hit with the shovel were the most common reasons for getting hurt.
  • Muscle, ligament, tendon, and other soft tissue injuries topped the list of snow shoveling mishaps. Among these, lower back injuries were common.
  • Other common snow shoveling injuries included cuts and broken bones. The arms and hands were the most likely body regions to sustain a bone fracture.
  • Heart-related problems made up only 7% of snow shoveling injuries. However, all deaths due to snow shoveling were caused by heart problems.

Adults over 55 were 4.25 times more likely than younger people to have heart-related symptoms while shoveling.

Snow Shoveling and Children

Most snow shoveling injuries occurred in adult men. However, more than 700 injuries occurred in children under 19. Children were nearly 15 times more likely than adults to be hurt because they were hit by a snow shovel. Most of these injuries were head injuries.

"Shoveling snow can be a great outdoor activity for kids; however, it is important for parents to teach children the correct way to shovel snow and remind them that shovels are not toys," Smith, says in the news release. "Many of the snow shovel-related injuries to children are the result of horseplay or other inappropriate uses of snow shovels."

Time for a New Shovel?

Could a redesign of the snow shovel head off some overexertion injuries? Many experts say yes. The basic snow shovel hasn't changed much since it was invented over 100 years ago. Handgrips are often lacking, and the shovel length typically is too short for most users. Steel shovels are heavy. This inefficient, non-ergonomic design forces users to bend and twist while heaving snow, raising the risk for spine injury.

Adapting a shovel so that the pole is longer, adjustable, and curved can decrease the amount of bending needed, researchers say. Studies have shown that curved-shaft shovels can help lower your risk of muscle injury. More user-friendly shovels are becoming available and are typically made of lighter materials such as plastic or lightweight aluminum.

New shovel or not, before you head out to shovel snow, check with your doctor. Your doctor might nix the idea if you have heart problems or do not exercise regularly. If you get the go-ahead, be sure to follow these tips from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons before digging in:

  • Warm up with some light exercise first.
  • Wear slip-resistant shoes.
  • Pace yourself and take frequent breaks.
  • Try to push the snow out of the way instead of lifting it.
  • Do not throw the snow over your shoulder or to the side because the twisting motion involved may stress your back.

SOURCES: Watson, D. American Journal of Emergency Medicine, January 2011;vol 29: pp 11-17.News release, Nationwide Children's Hospital.American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons web site: "Prevent snow shoveling and snow blowing injuries."

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