Shoveling Snow? Go Slow!
Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Snow Shovel

We all know the scenario: the beautiful falling snow, followed by the headache that comes with having to shovel it the next day. Well, according to a new study, folks should take it easy out there when it comes to cleaning up the “white stuff.”

A new study has confirmed the commonly held belief that strenuous snow shoveling can trigger a heart attack.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Research in Cardiology, researchers reviewed patient records from two winter seasons at a hospital in Ontario, Canada, pinpointing 500 patients who arrived at the hospital with heart problems during those two winters.

Over all, about 7 percent of the patients said they were shoveling snow when heart attack symptoms began. About two-thirds of those patients were men with an average age of 63, and most had a history of premature cardiovascular disease.

The actual percentage of heart problems associated with snow shoveling may be much higher, the researcher said, since the patients were not asked specifically if they’d been shoveling snow, but rather had to volunteer that information.

In a smaller study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that most heart attacks from shoveling snow result from heavy physical exertion causing trauma to coronary arteries, which ruptures plaques that cut off blood flow. One way to lower the risk, particularly in people who smoke or rarely exercise, is to reduce sudden exertion. Experts recommend shoveling early, when snow is lighter, and taking breaks.

“Snow shoveling can be more strenuous – and harder on one’s heart – than people might think,” said Dr. Joshua Crasner, a board certified cardiologist on staff with Kennedy University Hospital. “It’s important to not take risks if you have a history of cardiac issues and to pace yourself when shoveling, even if you don’t. If you experience any pain, stop immediately.”

Dr. Crasner notes that signs and symptoms of a heart attack may include any or all of the following:

  • Heavy, squeezing pressure in the chest and/or back, sometimes radiating to the arms or in-between the shoulder blades.
  • Sudden onset of shortness of breath, often with exertion, which improves upon resting.
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness.
  • Heavy perspiration that is out of proportion to the physical activity being performed.

“Any of these symptoms mean you may be experiencing the early signs of a heart attack,” said Dr. Crasner. “If you have nitroglycerin sublingual tablets or spray, use accordingly, and chew/swallow three baby aspirin or one whole adult tablet. If these symptoms worsen or do not get better, call 911 in order to receive timely care at your nearest ER … this could be a life-saving move!”

Those most at risk for a heart attack include:

  • Anyone who already has had a heart attack.
  • Individuals with a history of heart disease.
  • Those with high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels.
  • Smokers.
  • Individuals leading a sedentary lifestyle.

Be heart healthy and back friendly while shoveling this winter with these tips:

  • If you are inactive and have a history of heart trouble, talk to your doctor before you take on the task of shoveling snow.
  • Avoid caffeine or nicotine before beginning. These are stimulants, which may increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict. This places extra stress on the heart.
  • Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is just as big an issue in cold winter months as it is in the summer.
  • Dress in several layers so you can remove a layer as needed. Synthetic fibers help wick away perspiration better than natural fibers.
  • Warm your muscles before shoveling by walking for a few minutes or marching in place. Warm muscles will work more efficiently and be less likely to be injured.
  • Pick the right shovel for you. A smaller blade will require you to lift less snow, putting less strain on your body.
  • Begin shoveling slowly to avoid placing a sudden demand on your heart. Pace yourself and take breaks as needed.
  • Protect your back from injury by lifting correctly. Stand with your feet about hip width for balance and keep the shovel close to your body. Bend from the knees (not the back) and tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow. Avoid twisting movements. If you need to move the snow to one side, reposition your feet to face the direction the snow will be going.
  • Most importantly, listen to your body. Stop if you feel pain.

Sources: Tufts Heath & Nutrition Update, National Safety Council, CDC.