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Three tips to stay safe while shoveling snow

Proper ergonomic form protects against injury, experts say

Jean Proctor shoveled the snow left by plows in front of her driveway in Attleboro on Tuesday.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Winter weather means snow shoveling. And that means it could be a busy few weeks for the region’s orthopedists and physical therapists. By some estimates, snow shoveling leads to more than 11,500 injuries and 100 deaths a year, nationally.

Here are some tips from experts on how to avoid becoming one of those statistics.

Don’t take on too much

Over the course of close to 15 years working as a physical therapist, Nikki Guerin of Tufts Medical Center has seen scores of snow shoveling injuries, ranging from arm and shoulder muscle strains to back problems. Many occur because people underestimate the amount of exertion involved, she said.

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“The main thing that people need to keep in mind when they wake up to a bunch of snow on the ground, whether it’s two inches or a foot, is that this is physical activity and this is exercise, and if you don’t regularly exercise, this is going to be a lot of work,” she said. “It’s not just taking out the trash. You’re going to have to do this for up to half an hour, maybe longer, depending on your driveway or your walkway or whatever you’re trying to clear off.”

Overexertion doesn’t just place individuals at risk of injury, it can also lead to heart attacks. To minimize the risk, Guerin recommends breaking the shoveling up into smaller doses, perhaps 15 minutes at a time taking smaller loads ― not “as much snow are you can carry.”

“It’s strenuous, and it’s repetition. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, I have to lift a heavy box one time.’ And so that’s really taxing to our cardiovascular system if you’re not doing some sort of exercise regularly.”

Focus on holding snow closer to the body and keeping the spine straight

The human skeleton is designed to safely bear weight. When our joints are properly aligned, weight is transferred efficiently straight down to the ground. That’s why experts recommend we hold heavy loads close to the core, which transfers the strain to the skeleton.

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Dr. Andrew White, an orthopedic surgeon who heads the spine surgery section at New England Baptist Hospital, said injuries generally occur when the weight is held away from the body, which pulls individual joints out of alignment and places a strain on soft tissue. This can damage the muscles, tendons, and ligaments attached to the bones and even pull individual vertebrae out of position, which can cause a herniated disc and pinch a nerve.

To avoid this, White recommends shovelers keep their hands close to their waist and torso, which will help keep the weight of the snow closer to the body.

“Don’t be reaching out far forward. Don’t be reaching out far to the right or left. If you’re holding the weight way in front of you, that is going to pull you forward, increase the amount of twist on the back ... and pull on the spine,” he said.

Use your whole body to lift the snow

Guerin recommends bending your knees as you slide the shovel under the snow and then straightening them out as you lift the shovel off the ground. This will minimize the need to bend forward and allow the muscles of the legs to bear the weight of the snow. Then, rather than twisting the body and tossing the snow to the side, she suggests moving the feet to turn the entire body, before depositing the snow off to the side

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“Try to keep your spine and back straight,” she said. “The head to the tailbone needs to stay in one straight line.”

White notes that ergonomic snow shovels now exist with curved or bent shafts designed to allow people to lift snow with less bending and hold the shovel closer to their body. White is also a fan of smaller shovels that force people to lift lighter loads and decrease the possibility that shovelers will “bite off more than they can chew.”


Adam Piore can be reached at adam.piore@globe.com.