Oh, My Aching Back! The Body Mechanics of Snow Removal

| Posted On Jan 31, 2017 | By:

Winter weather in New England is unpredictable, to say the least. We can go from no snow in sight to 10 or more inches overnight. Dealing with snow storms – and more importantly, with snow removal – is a big challenge for most of us. To successfully clear a driveway or walkway, it often takes hours of shoveling to get the job done and can easily create lots of body aches and pains. Low back pain is a very common complaint post shoveling, due to the repetitive and physically taxing nature of lifting and throwing snow.

But there is some good news: there are ways to limit the amount of stress we put on our backs while shoveling snow, and things we can do in case we find ourselves with some back discomfort. First, here are some simple tips to limit the amount of stress we put on our backs while shoveling:

You finally got the job done and walk inside to warm up. It’s then you realize that your lower back is becoming increasingly painful! You have most likely irritated one of your discs. Disc pain is most often due to micro-trauma in the annulus (the dough portion of the jelly donut analogy.) There is a wealth of biomechanical data which has shown us that flexion of the low back – losing the curve in your low back by flattening or rounding it forward – is the primary cause of micro-trauma. We also know that combining flexion and rotation is just as harmful if not worse. The treatment for this type of pain is extremely effective for 80-90% of people who experience it, but it is counterintuitive because it often involves bending or stretching in the direction of the pain. Try these simple exercises if you find yourself with a sore back after shoveling:

Last but not least, after performing these stretches, your back may feel tight. It is very important that you resist the urge to stretch forward. This may feel good initially, but you are setting yourself up for additional back discomfort created by disc irritation. You should also not perform knee to chest stretching or bending forward. Instead, use ice, heat or topical pain ointment in the near term to help with tight or sore muscles in your back.

Here are some other helpful videos and articles:

Why Discs Hurt?

Dr. Stuart McGill – Spine flexion exercise: Myths, Truths and Issues affecting health and performance

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About Natalie Toczylowski, DPT

Natalie Toczylowski, DPT has been a physical therapist with Harvard Vanguard since 2015. She has recently moved into a clinical specialist role, devoting her clinical practice and research time to treating back pain. She was drawn to the physical therapy profession from her days in New England age group and collegiate swimming, seeing the positive effect of shoulder rehabilitation on her teammates. She has lived in New England her whole life and enjoys hiking, running, and swimming.

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