Winter is here, and with it comes the physical stressors of dealing with the snow. Each year, over 11,000 people are seen in emergency rooms for shoveling-related injuries or incidents. Many of these injuries are related to the lower back, an area under severe stress during shoveling. Let’s take a look at why this is, and some ways to avoid shoveling injuries.
One of the most likely tissues affected from a shoveling-related injury are the lower back intervertebral discs. The anatomy of a disc is similar to a jelly donut, soft in the middle and tougher around the edges. The outer, tougher edge is thicker in the front, therefore most injuries happen at the back side of the discs. The problem is that this is also very close to the spinal cord and nerve roots exiting the cord, so bad disc injuries can result in nerve irritation and very serious consequences.
Bend, Twist, Lift
The bend, twist, and lift motion of shoveling is another major reason why so many disc injuries happen. Bending the spine forward results in backward pressure on the discs. Think of squeezing that jelly donut from the front and the pressure pushing the jelly toward the back. The “twist” motion of shoveling puts the discs in a compromised position. This is due to their layered structure, and how the tissue fibers attach to the spinal bones themselves. When we rotate our spine, about half of these disc fibers get stretched while the other half relax. Finally, the “lift” motion of shoveling, combined with the poor position of being bent forward and twisted, is often the final straw which will result in the disc injury occurring. Whenever we lift something heavy, the muscles of our core turn on increase the total pressure of our abdomen. This sudden spike in intra-abdominal pressure can injure a poorly-positioned disc.
So how do we prevent shoveling injuries? Unfortunately the only way to avoid them completely is to avoid shoveling completely. The functional motion required to shovel, combined with the anatomy of the intervertebral discs makes shoveling a dangerous activity. However, there are ways to train our body to make a shoveling-related injury far less likely. This comes from a combination of proper spinal stability and mobility. Strong core muscles will help stabilize the spine when lifting each shovel full of heavy snow. To start on increasing core strength, check out McGill’s Big Three core exercises; the bird-dog, side-plank, and curl-up. Proper spinal mobility is vital for the health of the discs, and performing such a dynamic movement like shoveling. When the spinal joints stop moving properly, the discs and core muscles are under increased stress when shoveling, and injury becomes more likely. Stretching, functional range of motion training, and chiropractic adjustments are perfect ways to maintain proper spinal mobility.
Shoveling snow is one of the toughest activities on the lower back. However, understanding the anatomy of the body, the functional motion of shoveling, and how to train our bodies to handle shoveling, risk of injury can be reduced or avoided. Stay safe, and stay warm!
Yours in Health, Dr. Alex