Top tips to avoid back, neck pain when shovelling

Winter is on the way, and with thousands of Canadians suffering from back and neck injuries related to shovelling each year, the forecast is painful. Yet there are steps everyone can take to avoid getting hurt – even before picking up a shovel.

“Most people don’t think about stretching before going out to shovel, yet this is the No. 1 step to avoid muscle pulls and strains, even for those who work out regularly,” said Dr. Ron Nusbaum, Founder and Director of Back Clinics of Canada, which sees an increase in patients with back injuries every winter.

“Contrary to popular belief, shoveling uses all the major muscle groups and is a high intensity workout,” Dr. Nusbaum said, suggesting 10 minutes of shoulder rolls, arm circles, back and neck stretches, and overhead arm extensions using a light shovel as a “bar bell” as best bets to warm up for the arduous task ahead. He offers these additional tips to reduce the chance of back and neck injuries when shoveling:

Use proper gear. Choose a shovel with a fibre handle since it’s lighter and less strenuous to use than one with a metal or wood grip. A steel, rather than plastic, edge is also preferred as it’s less likely to break and cause accidents. 

Dress for success. Cold muscles are more susceptible to injury so it’s important to dress warmly. Layer clothing to provide ventilation and peel off layers as needed to maintain a comfortable body temperature. Wear footwear with good traction to avoid slips.

Perfect your shoveling skills: Keep your knees bent and back straight, holding the shovel handle close to your body no higher than your hips. Push the snow with your shovel rather than lift it. If you must lift, scoop small amounts using your legs, not back. Never throw the snow – walk it to the snow pile instead.

Shovel early. Avoid waiting for the snow to finish falling before shovelling. Snow that’s piled up, packed on the ground or partially melted is harder on the back as it’s difficult to maneuver. Newly-fallen snow is lighter and easier to shovel.

Take breaks. While it’s tempting to get the daunting task of shoveling done quickly, it’s best to rest every 15 minutes or so to avoid muscle stiffness. Take the time to straighten up, walk around, stretch and drink water to keep your body from overheating.

Should you experience back pain while shoveling, Dr. Nusbaum recommends putting down the shovel immediately. “Get off your feet, lie down for an hour and place a pillow under your knees to take pressure off of your back. Ice the injury – rather than apply heat – to reduce inflammation, 15 minutes on and off,” he said. “After that, it’s important to move around to avoid losing muscle strength and causing more damage.”

If the pain persists for more than two days, or if you experience shooting pain down your leg – caused by the sciatic nerve and indicative of disc involvement – it’s a good idea to see a back expert immediately, explained Dr. Nusbaum, adding that 90 percent of people visiting his clinic have damaged discs.

“The biggest mistake people make when experiencing back pain is waiting too long to see a professional because they thought the pain would go away,” he said. “The longer you wait, the bigger the problem and the harder it is to manage.”

As opposed to treating pain with narcotics, anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants – often prescribed by family doctors – Dr. Nusbaum explained that many back experts take a drug-free approach. Natural treatments range from chiropractic intervention to physical therapy, which may include laser therapy as well as non-surgical spinal decompression solutions.

He said that most of his clinic’s patients are people who have suffered from damaged discs – whether bulging, herniated or degenerative discs – for months and even years, due to shoveling or other activities, and come to him after they have unsuccessfully tried everything else.

“Our message to people suffering from long-term back pain is to never give up hope because there’s good news – it’s possible to get rid of back pain for good,” Dr. Nusbaum said. “Today, a combination of natural treatments has been found to provide unprecedented results for back pain sufferers,” he explained, adding that his clinic has been able to successfully help the majority of patients who have damaged discs.

More tips on avoiding back and neck injuries when shoveling can be found at

Until December 31, 2017, visitors to the Back Clinics of Canada website can enter into a draw to win one of 10 Winter Back Prize Packs each valued at approximately $540. Each prize pack consists of a free back consultation and examination, selected back treatments, and an ObusForme lower back support and Shiatsu massage heated cushion.  

About Back Clinics of Canada

Back Clinics of Canada is a leading Toronto back pain clinic that helps patients suffering from serious, debilitating low back and neck pain using a proprietary, groundbreaking treatment called The High Performance Healing SystemTM. The first system of its kind in Canada, it effectively treats such conditions as bulging, herniated and protruding discs, sciatica, Degenerative Disc Disease, spinal arthritis and facet syndrome in a safe, non-surgical, painless, non-invasive and drug-free way. The recipient of the Consumer Choice Award for the GTA for the last three years, Back Clinics of Canada adapts treatments to each patient’s unique needs using a combination of back and neck stretching technology, laser and medical nutritional supplements called Disc Renewal PlusTM.

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash