In the Midwest, winter typically means icy roads, slippery sidewalks and snowdrifts. These aren’t pleasant for anyone, but they’re especially perilous for individuals who suffer from chronic back pain. Too much snow shoveling or a wrong move on an unsalted sidewalk can mean days or even weeks of pain. Below are a few tips and reminders on how to avoid exacerbated muscle fatigue and back injury throughout the season of snow.
Warm up before doing any strenuous activity | Stretching isn’t just for athletics! Get your heart rate up by jogging in place or doing jumping jacks, then do some simple stretches, focusing on the areas of the body that you’ll be using. For activities like shoveling or carrying large loads, stretch your lower back by touching your fingers as low to the ground as you can without bending your knees, then raising your arms straight above your head while slowly stretching your neck from side to side. Also do some twisting of your trunk and arms back and forth.
Slow down | Take your time—your back will thank you! If there are any existing or potential winter weather hazards, give yourself extra time in your travels. Don’t rush on sidewalks or driveways, and take advantage of railings on stairs. Flailing to catch your balance can cause worsened back pain just as easily as outright falling can. You can also avoid falls by wearing footwear with reliable traction or utilizing a walking stick to enhance your stability.
Don’t take on too much | Whether you’re disposing of your Christmas tree or lugging a large load of shopping from your vehicle, be careful with how much you’re carrying and how you’re carrying it. Never bend at your lower back. Instead, bend at the hips and knees and engage your abdominal muscles to keep your back straight. Distribute the weight of what you’re carrying as equally as you can, and keep it as close to your body as possible. Take breaks when your body tells you it has had enough, and stop what you’re doing if you experience:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Sudden sharp lower back pain
- Shooting pains in your legs
If these symptoms do not subside, go to the closest emergency room or call 911.
Stay active | As important as it is to go easy while lifting and walking in hazardous conditions, it’s also important to keep your muscles strong with regular exercise. Strong muscles—especially a strong core—actually help you avoid future injuries by supporting your body! If it’s too cold to go to the gym, try a series of bodyweight exercises. Consult with your clinician to develop an exercise routine that fits your health needs, and you’ll be able to enjoy the season without the extra pains! Many times it is normal to be a little sore or stiff after doing things such as shoveling snow. If the pain is sharp, it prevents you from doing your normal activities for more than a day or two, or you experience shooting pain into your legs or arms, see a healthcare provider. Normal muscle discomfort should subside 1-2 days after the activity.
Author: Dennis Kaster PT, OCS
Dennis is the director for Rehabilitation Services at Ministry Saint Michael’s Hospital in Stevens Point.