Shovelling Snow & Back Pain: Staying Safe and Pain-Free


back-pain-shovelling

Posted by Dr. Scott Wilson | 15-Feb-2023

  • Back pain is a common consequence of shovelling snow for many Canadians. Often, this is due to a lack of physical preparation, poor technique, and sub-optimal equipment.
  • Warming up your muscles, stretching, using proper technique, using proper equipment and building strength can significantly help to reduce your risk of back pain or injury from shovelling snow.
  • Alternatively or additionally, using deicing agents, using a snow blower/thrower or plow, or hiring a professional service can help to reduce or even eliminate your risk altogether.

Each winter, far too many Canadians experience lower back pain from shovelling snow. Despite milder temperatures in some regions, there’s no escaping the fact that when it snows, many of us have no choice but to head outside to shovel driveways, walkways and/or laneways. Unfortunately, the repetitive motion and heavy lifting associated with shovelling can put a lot of strain on the lower back, which sometimes results in pain and discomfort.  Fortunately, with exercises and stretching before and after shovelling, proper technique or biomechanics, and alternatives to traditional shovelling methods, you can stay safe and pain-free this winter. In this article, we’ll look at what you can do to avoid back pain or injury while shovelling snow this year. However, first, here’s a quick overview of why shovelling snow can lead to pain or injury.

How Shovelling Snow Causes Back Pain

There are three main reasons why shovelling snow can lead to lower back pain, whether through a new injury or by exacerbating a pre-existing condition: 

  1. Repetitive Motions & Heavy Lifting: The repetitive motion of pushing, lifting and throwing snow can put a lot of strain on your back muscles; especially your lower back muscles. Also, lifting a heavy shovel full of dense or slushy snow can put extra pressure on your spine. This, too, can lead to back pain or injury.
  2. Poor Body Mechanics: Poor posture and body mechanics, including slouching or twisting your back, can put extra stress on your spine and is also a key contributor to back pain or injury from shovelling.
  3. Lack of Preparation & Conditioning: Shovelling snow is a physically demanding activity and if your body isn’t prepared or properly conditioned for the physical demands of shovelling snow, it can lead to pain or injury. Obviously, the less physically active or the more sedentary your lifestyle, the greater your risk.

Five Tips for Avoiding Back Pain From Shovelling Snow

While shovelling snow can be a risky task, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Here are five things to consider: 

  1. Warming Up: Warming up before shovelling helps to prepare your muscles for the upcoming physical stress. The goal is simply to increase blood flow to your muscles to help to make them more resilient. This can be done by doing a few minutes of light cardio, such as marching or jogging in place. 
  2. Stretching: Stretching is an important part of preparing your body for shovelling. It’s also good for helping your body to recover afterward. Focus on the major muscle groups involved in the activity. This includes your back, legs, and core. Prior to shovelling, focus on dynamic stretching. This helps prepare your muscles, ligaments and other soft tissue for stress & strain. After shovelling, focus on static stretching. This will help to prevent your muscles from feeling sore afterwards and will help to promote muscle recovery. 
  3. Using Proper Technique: Poor technique is one of the key reasons people experience lower back pain from shovelling. All too often, people rely too heavily on their arms and lower back to do the work. To avoid pain and injury, the key is to have your legs and core do the majority of the work. Always bend from your knees and lift the shovel with your entire body. Also, keep your stomach muscles tight, your back straight and be sure to keep the shovel close to you. Finally, when throwing the snow, do not twist your body but, Instead, turn your entire body. In between, be sure to take breaks to relax your body and breathe. While not a biomechanical issue, pace does matter. In other words, do not push your body beyond what it can handle. 
  4. Using Proper Equipment: Using proper equipment can also help to reduce the physical demands of shovelling and help to prevent back pain. For example, an ergonomic shovel can reduce the amount of strain placed on your back and shoulders. Wearing proper footwear can help to avoid slips that could lead to pulled or torn muscles.
  5. Building Strength: Strengthening your legs, core, back and arm muscle strength is another example of something that can help reduce your risk of back pain or injury from shovelling. Of course, unlike the other items above, this is a longer term initiative. It also provides benefits that go beyond shovelling snow. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and plank holds can be particularly effective in this case.

Three Snow Shovelling Alternatives To Help Prevent Back Pain

While snow removal is an unavoidable task for some of us, there are safer and more manageable alternatives to shovelling. Here are three options to consider that are still very effective:

  1. Salt or Deicing Agents: Using salt or deicing agents on your driveway, walkways or laneways can help to prevent snow and ice from bonding to the surface. While not a substitute for the items identified above, these agents can help to make the snow easier to remove. This reduces your risk of pain or injury from shovelling. It also makes surfaces less slippery, which reduces your risk of slipping and falling.
  2. Using a Snow Blower/Thrower or Plow: Using a snow blower or thrower can significantly reduce your risk of back pain or injury by having the blower/thrower do the majority of the work. It reduces the amount of movement and physical stress involved and it’s also a more efficient method of clearing snow. If you have a large area to be cleared, a snow plow can make the job easier and risk free.
  3. Using a Professional Service: If you’re unable to shovel the snow yourself or if it represents too great a physical risk, consider hiring a professional snow shovelling service. With their experience, equipment and expertise, they can clear your snow without any risk of personal injury to you.

Staying Healthy While Shovelling This Winter

Shovelling snow is a physically demanding task that often causes back pain and injury for many Canadians each winter. However, you can significantly reduce your risk of injury. Proper preparation in the form of warm-up exercises and stretches, and proper technique and equipment can make an important difference. Additionally or alternatively, you can consider other methods of snow removal. Using a snow blower or hiring a professional can further reduce or even eliminate your risk. 

If you or someone you know needs help with addressing lower back pain from shovelling or some other cause, contact us today and let our team of highly skilled Physiotherapists, Chiropractors and Massage Therapists show you why, at Physiomed, Healthier Starts Here.


Dr. Scott Wilson

Dr. Scott Wilson is the Founder & Chairman of Physiomed; one of Canada’s largest franchised networks of inter-disciplinary healthcare clinics. A graduate of Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, Dr. Wilson founded Physiomed in 1994 and has since grown Physiomed to over 30 clinics in Southern Ontario and British Columbia. With hundreds of practitioners from over a dozen disciplines, Dr. Wilson and Physiomed have helped over 100,000 Canadians with physiotherapy, chiropractic, massage therapy, orthotic therapy, compression therapy and clinical conditioning as part of a program of rehabilitation and health optimization. In addition to helping patients improve their physical and mental well-being, Dr. Wilson has also mentored hundreds of practitioners to provide better care while enjoying more fulfilling careers. He is also a keynote speaker on many health related topics including how physiotherapy, chiropractic and health & wellness treatment can help with stress, weight loss, and unlocking the true potential within to achieve lasting physical well-being.

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