Lower Back Tops the List for Snow-shoveling Injuries | Loyola Medicine
Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The lower back tops the list for snow-shoveling injuries

Tips to avoid the emergency room this winter from Loyola trauma leader

MAYWOOD, Ill. (February 2, 2015) – Mother Nature scored a touchdown this Super Bowl Sunday, dumping more than a foot of wet, heavy snow on the Chicago area and causing many to take to the streets and alleys to clear thoroughfares. But incorrect bending and lifting to shovel snow can lead to a trip to the Emergency Department.

"Each year, an average of 11,500 people are treated in emergency departments across the United States for heart attacks, broken bones and other injuries related to snow shoveling," said Richard Gonzalez, MD, director of the division of Trauma, Critical Care & Acute Care Surgery at Loyola University Health System.

Chicago celebrated the Super Bowl with a snow storm that dumped 14.2 inches of accumulation, putting it in a tie for the area’s 10th largest snowstorm in recorded history, according to the National Weather Service.  

"The slow start to winter and relatively limited snowfall this season caused many to relax. This heavy show caught many people off-guard," says Gonzalez, co-director of The Burn and Shock Trauma Research Institute of Loyola University Chicago. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reports that of winter trauma events, soft-tissue injuries such as bumps, sprains, blisters and bruises were the most common (55 percent), lacerations or cuts (16 percent) and fractures (7 percent.) The lower back is the most frequently injured region of the body (34 percent) followed by injuries to the arms and hands (16 percent) and head (15 percent.)

Gonzalez recommends that people with a history of back or heart problems let someone else do the heavy lifting. If you have to do it yourself, he says, know your limits and don’t overdo it. "We know that 100 percent of the 1,647 fatalities associated with shoveling snow are from cardiac-related injuries, although they account for only 7 percent of the total number of cases," says Gonzalez.

"Shoveling is a very physical activity that is comparable to lifting heavy weights repeatedly and quickly," says Joe Berg, fitness specialist and manager for the Loyola Center for Fitness. "As with any exercise, it’s important to begin with a five- to 10-minute warm-up."

He suggests taking a brief walk or marching in place to get your body ready for the physical strain. Also, try adding arm movements and stretching your back to warm up the upper body.

Here are a few more tips to help you stay healthy during shoveling season:


  • Dress appropriately. Wearing layers allows you to adjust to the temperature outside. When you are going to be outside for a long time, cover your skin to prevent frostbite.
  • Use a small shovel that has a curved handle. A shovel with wet snow can weigh up to 15 pounds. A small shovel ensures you have a lighter load, which can prevent injury.
  • Separate your hands on the shovel. By creating space between your hands, you can increase your leverage on the shovel.
  • Lift with your legs, not your back. Make sure your knees are bending and straightening to lift the shovel instead of leaning forward and straightening with the back.
  • Shovel frequently. Don’t wait until the snow piles up. Shovel intermittently, about every 2 inches.
  • Push the snow. It is easier and better for your back to push the snow rather than lift it. Also, never throw snow over your shoulders.
  • Pace yourself. Take breaks and gently stretch your back, arms and legs before returning to work.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water is important when exercising, regardless of the outside temperature.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine. These stimulants increase the heart rate and constrict blood vessels, putting a strain on your heart.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages. Alcohol can dull your senses and make you vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite.


"Each season has its own particular set of risks, but winter with its snowstorms, plunging temperatures and wind chill can be especially daunting when it comes to safety," says Gonzalez.

Loyola is the only Level 1 Trauma Center in Illinois certified by the American College of Surgeons. A Level 1 Trauma Center is equipped to provide comprehensive emergency medical services to patients suffering traumatic injuries - car and motorcycle crashes, stabbings, athletic injuries, falls - using multidisciplinary treatment and specialized resources.

About Loyola Medicine

Loyola Medicine is a quaternary care system based in the western suburbs of Chicago that includes Loyola University Medical Center (LUMC) in Maywood, Gottlieb Memorial Hospital (GMH) in Melrose Park, MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn and convenient locations offering primary and specialty care services from more than 1,750 physicians throughout Cook, Will and DuPage counties. LUMC is a 547-licensed-bed hospital that includes the William G. and Mary A. Ryan Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine, the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, a Level 1 trauma center, Illinois's largest burn center, a certified comprehensive stroke center and a children’s hospital. The medical center campus is also home to Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. GMH is a 247-licensed-bed community hospital with 150 physician offices, an adult day care program, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, the Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park. MacNeal Hospital is a 374-bed teaching hospital with advanced inpatient and outpatient medical, surgical and psychiatric services, advanced diagnostics and treatments in a convenient community setting at eight locations. Loyola Medicine is a member of Trinity Health, one of the nation’s largest health systems with 94 hospitals in 22 states.

About Trinity Health

Trinity Health is one of the largest multi-institutional Catholic health care delivery systems in the nation, serving diverse communities that include more than 30 million people across 22 states. Trinity Health includes 93 hospitals, as well as 122 continuing care programs that include PACE, senior living facilities, and home care and hospice services. Its continuing care programs provide nearly 2.5 million visits annually. Based in Livonia, Mich., and with annual operating revenues of $17.6 billion and assets of $23.4 billion, the organization returns $1.1 billion to its communities annually in the form of charity care and other community benefit programs. Trinity Health employs about 131,000 colleagues, including 7,500 employed physicians and clinicians. Committed to those who are poor and underserved in its communities, Trinity Health is known for its focus on the country's aging population. As a single, unified ministry, the organization is the innovator of Senior Emergency Departments, the largest not-for-profit provider of home health care services — ranked by number of visits — in the nation, as well as the nation’s leading provider of PACE (Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly) based on the number of available programs. For more information, visit www.trinity-health.org. You can also follow @TrinityHealthMI on Twitter.