Backs and shoulders take the brunt of snow shoveling

Rose Cox |

Published: Anchorage Daily News - January 7th, 2008 03:24 PM

Snow shoveling combines some of John DeCarlo’s least favorite things — bending and twisting while lifting. As an occupational therapist at the Alaska Spine Institute for the past 15 years, he sees the annual uptick when the snow flies: Patients with bulging or torn discs in the spine; low back strain; irritated sciatic nerves that send shooting pains down the leg; tendonitis and torn rotator cuffs in the shoulder.

“Shoveling is probably hardest on the back, the next is probably the shoulder,” he said.

He can even pinpoint the exact spot in the spine most likely to be injured — the disc between vertebras lumbar 5 and sacrum 1.

“That’s the disc that takes all the pressure when you’re forward bending while lifting a load,” he said. “The disc gets pinched in the front and the disc material extends in a rear direction, pressing on the nerve roots where they exit the lumbar spine.”

DeCarlo employs a nifty software — the 3D Static Strength Prediction Program developed by University of Michigan — to assess compressive forces on the spine. Lifting a 12-pound load with a shovel using good body mechanics translates into 328 pounds of compressive force on the disc, according to his program. Bad body mechanics places 586 pounds of compression. At 770 pounds, you’re damaging tissue over time.

Although it may appear to be a single incident that lands you in the emergency room, it’s usually the everyday wear and tear of bad body mechanics, coupled with repetitive motion, that makes shoveling literally the straw that breaks the camel’s back, DeCarlo said.

It’s his job to get patients up and moving after they’re injured, but he’d rather see people avoid the long and painful rehab process.

Bend the knees while shoveling, he said, to keep the back in a neutral position. Hold the load close to the body and lift with the legs. Always point the feet in the direction of the load.

We may know these things. So why don’t we do them?

Simple, DeCarlo said: Gravity makes it easier to bend our backs to the job.

“Lifting with good body mechanics uses more muscles. If you’re in good shape and use good body mechanics, it’s good exercise.”