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Don't shovel your way into the ER

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A woman shovels snow from in front of her Fort Garry house.

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A woman shovels snow from in front of her Fort Garry house. Photo Store

With every new snowfall, Winnipeg's hospital emergency departments receive people suffering the consequences of snow shovelling. Everything from minor strains and sprains to major events such as heart attacks show up.

I'll share a few stories from the emergency department that illustrate how easy it is to injure yourself while shovelling snow -- and what you can do to avoid a trip to the emergency department.

Sara (all names changed to protect pride) is a 30-year-old, healthy woman. She presented with terrible pains in her shoulders, upper back and thighs. She had trouble lifting her arms, and it hurt her to walk. She said the muscles started to get sore a day or two after she shovelled snow.

"How much shovelling did you do?"

"A bit."

A bit for Sara was about 21/2 hours of non-stop shovelling.

"Was that longer than your usual workout routine?"

"Oh, I don't usually work out."

Sara overused muscles she doesn't usually use much at all. She will be OK with time and simple painkillers.

John is a 42-year-old non-smoker with a previously injured back that bothers him now and then. He is fairly active. John presented to the emergency department straight from the driveway after experiencing a sudden pain in his lower back, as well as pain shooting into the left thigh, down to about the knee.

"How were you shovelling?"

Turned out his technique was to lock his knees, bend forward at the waist, fill the shovel, stand up using his back muscles, then twist at the waist to throw the snow. Ouch!

John went for a CT scan, which confirmed an injured disc in the lower spine.

His recovery will be prolonged, and he is out for the shovelling season.

Adam, a 54-year-old smoker, is not very active physically and is on medication for hypertension.

Adam was brought to the emergency room by ambulance because of ongoing chest pain and heaviness in his arms during the previous six or seven hours.

Adam wanted to get the driveway shovelled quickly and he jumped into his winter gear and attacked the snow. He became short of breath within several minutes and started to experience some chest heaviness soon after.

"Did you stop shovelling at that point?"

"No. I thought it was because I was out of shape. I kept on, but the pain got worse."

Adam had had a heart attack. Fortunately, it was a small heart attack, and Adam should recover well. Lifestyle changes are in his future, and he, too, is out for the shovelling season.

Our three hapless shovellers show what's important to know about snow shovelling. From their experiences, the following tips will help you avoid injuries.

Fitness matters. Approach snow shovelling as you would any strenuous activity.

Match your shovelling to your fitness level. Warm up with stretches of the shoulders, back and leg muscles. Keep the shovel loads small and take frequent breaks.

Technique is key. Get a smaller, plastic-bladed shovel. An ergonomic, curved handle is best. Hold the shovel as close to the upper body as possible. Push the snow rather than throw it. If you must throw it, bend your knees and lift with your legs while tightening your stomach muscles. Keep your back straight as you stand. Do not twist at the waist. Throw straight ahead, or just off to the side using the shoulder muscles.

Health issues are important. Snow shovelling can strain the cardiovascular system. If you are over 50 years of age, live a sedentary lifestyle, smoke, have high blood pressure, heart disease or a previous heart attack, you should think twice about picking up the shovel. Let someone else help.

Shovel safely, and keep yourself in the snow and out of the emergency department.

 

Dr. Joe Wiatrowski is medical director of emergency at Grace Hospital.

Wondering where to go for medical help? Visit www.myrightcare.ca.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2014 A17

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