Common snow shoveling health risks, tips to stay safe

snow shoveling safety tips
01/02/14: Lawrence, MA: Lawrence mayor-elect Daniel Rivera is pictured as he shovels snow at his home on Thursday afternoon. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
The Boston Globe

Snow shoveling injuries are more common than you might think. Before you head out there into the hazardous conditions, it’s important to size up the health risks you’re taking.

“There’s a pretty significant risk of injury with shoveling snow that people don’t really think about,” says Dr. Kristina Orio, a Waltham-based emergency care physician at Doctors Express, a walk-in urgent care center with locations across Greater Boston.

Dr. Orio expects the Waltham location where she works will be busy with musculoskeletal injuries as the weekend continues and residents begin removing the large amounts of snow Boston received during snowstorm Hercules.

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A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that an average of 11,500 snow shoveling injuries occurred from 1990 to 2006 in the United States.

“Typically we see a lot of back injuries from shoveling and wrist fractures from people who slip and fall on the ice and land on their wrists,” says Dr. Orio.

During snow storms like Hercules, public officials recommend removing snow from rooftops before the weight of the snow becomes too heavy for the buildings. People should be careful using proper lifting techniques and snow removal equipment to avoid straining back or shoulder muscles.

The lower back is the most commonly injured body part during snow removal, according to the 2011 research, accounting for 34 percent of injuries. Dr. Orio says to watch out for localized pain in the lower back area that’s worse with movement or bending over.

“When clearing off roofs, you should be careful of back injuries and back strains from reaching over head, as well as chest well strains,” says Dr. Orio. “Doing it in small increments is important.”

There are also pretty significant health risks for those with heart disease who shovel snow. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine study found that cardiac-related injuries during snow removal accounted for 100 percent of the more than 1,600 snow removal fatalities that occurred in the United States during 16 years.

Orio recommends that anybody who has had a cardiac stent or a known history of cardiovascular disease previously should not shovel snow. Even people who don’t exercise regularly should check in with themselves and take breaks during the process, she says.

“Everyone should warm up before they go out there, so they aren’t shoveling with sudden exertion,” says Orio. “If they are tired or if they experience any chest pain or shortness of breath they should stop and take a break or contact a doctor.”

For more tips on going outside in this weekend’s frigid temperatures, check out these five mistakes to avoid in the bitter cold.