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Dr. Lipoff: Safe Snow Removal

Okay our big snow storm is forecasted so let’s talk about how to be safe. Besides slowing down and driving carefully, the difficult part about snow is shoveling it. Around 80 million Americans suffer back pain each year and these types of lifting injuries are a very common cause of back pain in the chiropractic office.

If you can find a guy to plow your driveway and not destroy your lawn then the only place you will experience pain during the winter will be in your wallet. If you are convinced snow blowing the driveway is the best solution, then you have to do it wisely.

To decrease the ringing in your ears with all power equipment, use ear plugs. Keeps you warm too. I would never want to damage my hearing and miss my wife telling me how to spend my weekend working on her honey-do list. Haha. 

I am a big fan of an electric starter. I don’t care if it’s your Harley or your leaf blower. Coming off the couch cold and stepping outside, without any loosening up and yanking a cord, which involves one side of your body, is just asking for trouble. This is the classic move that debilitates even the healthiest individual.

If you have to pull the cord, loosen and warm up your body and see if it will start with ease before you start to tip the machine with your forceful pulls. If it still doesn’t start, make sure the key is in the ON position. Oops. Yep … long story.

When I am using the snow blower I try not to wrestle with it. I walk behind it and let it do its thing for about 20 – 30 minutes. It is easy enough to stand behind and turn around making several passes. Notice I said 20 – 30 minutes. That factors in a break for your muscles and some hot chocolate.

When the snow is clumped, heavy or mostly ice, is when you are most likely to strain your back. Those conditions cause the machine to work less efficiently. I have had those nights when it seemed like the blower was headed in every direction I didn’t want it to be going. Your shoulders and back are all subject to injury if you need to manhandle the snow blower.

Take your time. And if something ever gets stuck in the blades use a stick, not your hands, to free it. Turn the machine off and free whatever is stuck because those blades are still under tension. Once the obstruction is gone the blades may turn quickly.

If you haven’t been able to con a neighborhood kid or one of your own to shovel the snow for you, then it is up to you. It is better to make sure you are loose, so don’t shovel first thing in the morning. Allow your back to warm up properly. Also when it is cold your blood vessels are constricted so use caution if you have any heart problems. That instant stress could cause a heart emergency.

Check the height of your shovel before you begin. If the shovel handle is too short you will bend forward more than you need to and may injure your back. The constant leaning forward causes the low back muscles to stay contracted. Stand up straight and stretch a few times to relieve some of this tightness.

If the handle is too long then the weight of the snow is farther from your body and can seem heavier than it is. A lot like holding a gallon of milk close and then far from your body. The further away, the heavier it feels.

When shoveling, slide your hands up so they are com¬fortable and it causes less stress to your back.

Make sure you aren’t overloading the shovel if the snow is wet and heavy. Move less snow and go slow. If the snow is light and fluffy then it shouldn’t be too bad if you load the shovel

Now if you are moving a large amount of snow, you then need to put it or throw it somewhere. Of course the proper way to lift a shovel piled high with snow is to bend your knees and keep your back straight. “Who does that?” I mean, try to lift with your knees, move your feet and dump the stuff where you need it. Otherwise you could step forward in the direction you are throwing it so there is momentum and it is easier on your body.

Another option depending on the landscape is to push the shovel to the edge of your driveway or sidewalk. Then take a leg and use your foot to lift and fling the snow or push it over the edge. Then there is no bending of the back.

After all of our talks I know you would never twist and throw the snow. That would be foolish because you are loading the spine and then twisting or shearing the compressed disc.

Several factors can contribute to how healthy your discs are over the years. The most common are stress to the area, the workload, posture, health of the spine, nutrition and exercise, as well as smoking. The normal aging of a disc will cause it to potentially dehydrate, shrink, harden and develop faulty biomechanics for lifting. When posture, ergonomics and all the other abuse is added to the equation it only further compounds the problem.

Poor posture can double low back pressure when lifting incorrectly. Standing upright is about 100 pounds of pressure per square inch in the low back but bending forward to wash dishes or brush your teeth, is 200 pounds of pressure.

If you bend forward to raise your shovel filled with snow higher than your waist you are only increasing the stress on your spine when you lift. This could result in a 10 – 15 fold increase in pressure on your disc. Like I mentioned before, just hold a gallon of milk close to your body and then away from it and feel the weight difference.

Factoring the 10 – 15 times the weight when lifting improperly in front of the body formula into everyday life, lifting a 10-pound shovel of snow would be up to 150 pounds of pressure on the low back. How many repetitive movements like that will it take to clear your driveway or harm your back?

The most common area to be affected by a disc problem is the lower lumbar spine, in the middle of your back at the level where your belt would be. The 4th Lumbar disc, also known as L4, and L5, the next one below it, are the two discs typically involved in more than 95 percent of low back pain. They take most of the abuse from constant bending, lifting heavy loads, bad posture and repetitive movements.

When we lift a laundry basket of wet clothes and turn to put it on the counter we are loading the disc and compressing it down under pressure.

If you experience back pain of any type please address it immediately versus waiting and having it come back time and time again. It only makes the problem worse and tougher to resolve. We aren’t getting any younger and the healing process takes longer when more and more abuse occurs to your spine.

Of course you can try some heat or ice, and even some medications to take the edge off but don’t think all’s well in the neighborhood. Talk to a Doctor of Chiropractic and let them diagnose the problem and help you find relief either at their office, or refer you out and co-treat you with a fellow healthcare professional.


Dr. Jay M. Lipoff is the owner of Back At Your Best Chiropractic & Physical Therapy, LLC, which is located in the Wildewood Shopping Center. Dr. Lipoff is also the author of “Back At Your Best; Balancing the Demands of Life With the Needs of Your Body.” It is available in book and Kindle format at Amazon.

He received his Bachelor of Science degree from Syracuse University in 1990, a Doctorate of Chiropractic (D.C.) from New York Chiropractic College (NYCC) in 1994 and he became a Certified Fitness Trainer (CFT) in 2005.

Dr. Lipoff is an Executive Board Member, International Chiropractic Association Council on Fitness and Sports Health Science; has a radio segment: Back At Your Best in 5 Minutes or Less, President and Founder; Foundation 4 Heroes, Contributing writer, Huffington Post’ Co-Founder, Drug Free Training USA; Member, NY Strength-promoting the importance of physical conditioning; Board Member of Public Relations Committee, Maryland Chiropractic Association; has spoken on nationally broadcasted radio interviews, has articles in print and referenced in over 100 print papers, magazine and on websites, President, Wildewood Business Network-promoting better business relations and community outreach.

For more information, go to www.BackAtYourBest.com, find us on facebook, or call 301-863-BEST (2378). www.f4heroes.com, 844-F4Heroes.

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