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10 Tips for Safe Shoveling

From the Desk of Dr. Douglas R. Briggs

Snow Shovel

The average drive or walkway may hold hundreds of pounds of snow! Protect yourself with these tips for safe shoveling.

Winter has arrived and snow is on its way! There is nothing more beautiful than new fallen snow-and possibly nothing harder on your back. If you plan on shoveling snow this winter; be careful, the physical exertion of bending lifting, and twisting, combined with the exposure to freezing weather conditions can take a serious toll on the body.

Anyone who has shoveled snow in the past knows how good a workout it can be. When you consider that the average shovel-full of snow weighs 5-10 pounds, the average drive or walkway may hold hundreds of pounds of snow. Typically, the arms, shoulders, and back get sore and may occasionally feel pain. The cold air invigorates most people into action; however the same cold air can numb the sensations of pain and fatigue. Unfortunately, pain is a sign that an injury has already occurred, or that mechanically you are doing something incorrect in shoveling the snow.

There is a right way and a wrong way to shovel snow-paying attention to your technique can make a big difference in how you feel the next day. As with any project, the prep work is the most important. The following are some tips on how to shovel snow smarter:

  1. Be prepared! Spray your shovel with non-stick spray so the snow will slide off.
  2. Do a warm-up before going out. A tight, stiff body is asking for injury. A few minutes of stretching can save you a lot of pain later. When you are working, don’t forget to breathe. Holding your breath makes you tight and stiff.
  3. Layered clothing will keep your muscles warm and flexible. You can shed a layer if you get to hot. Make sure you wear gloves that cover your wrists; if your wrists get cold your fingers, hands and arms will be cold too.
  4. Wear shoes with plenty of cushioning in the soles to absorb the impact of walking on hard frozen ground.
  5. Use a shovel that fits. Your shovel should be about chest high on you, allowing you to keep your back straight when lifting. A shovel with a short staff forces you to bend more to lift the load. A too-tall shovel makes the weight heavier at the end. (Note: save your money – don’t buy a fancy ergonomic shovel studies have shown that in some models the hook end is too deep. Twisting to unload a shovelful of snow with this tool may hurt your wrists.) Also keep one hand close to the base of the shovel to balance weight and lessen the strain on your back.
  6. Listen to weather forecasts so you can rise early and have time to shovel. If possible, wait until the afternoon to shovel. Many disc injuries occur in the morning when there is an increased fluid pressure in the disc because your body has been at rest all night.
  7. Drink water frequently throughout the day to keep muscles and body hydrated. Be careful with hot drinks like coffee or hot chocolate. Coffee contains caffeine, which has a dehydrating effect and adds even more stress to the body.
  8. When you do shovel, bend your knees and keep your back straight while lifting with your legs. Push the snow straight ahead, don’t try to throw it. Walk it to the snow bank. Try to shovel forward to avoid sudden twists of the torso to reduce strain on the back. The American Chiropractic Association recommends using the “scissors stance,” in which you work with your right foot forward for a few minutes and then change the front foot.
  9. See your chiropractor. Gentle spinal manipulation will help keep your back flexible and minimize the chance for injury. If you do overdo it, your chiropractor can help you feel better and prevent more injury.
  10. Take your time! Working too hard too fast is an easy way to strain muscles. Take frequent breaks. Shovel about five minutes and then rest for two. Remember to save some energy for that upcoming snowball fight!

Dr. Douglas R. Briggs, DC, Dipl.Med.Ac.(IAMA), L.Ac., DAAPM, is a Chiropractic Physician and Acupuncturist at First State Health & Wellness-Wilmington. First State Health & Wellness has been providing award-winning integrative healthcare and education for over 30 years. Services among six offices across Delaware include Chiropractic, Acupuncture, Massage, Functional Nutrition, Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression and Rehabilitation. Learn more at or call 302.654.4001 to schedule an appointment.

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