Patrick J. Skerrett

Protect your heart when shoveling snow

After shoveling the heavy, 18-inch layer of snow that fell overnight on my sidewalk and driveway, my back hurt, my left shoulder ached, and I was tired. Was my body warning me I was having a heart attack, or were these just the aftermath of a morning spent toiling with a shovel? Now that I’m of an AARP age, it’s a question I shouldn’t ignore.

Snow shoveling is a known trigger for heart attacks. Emergency rooms in the snowbelt gear up for extra cases when enough of the white stuff has fallen to force folks out of their homes armed with shovels or snow blowers. 

What’s the connection? Many people who shovel snow rarely exercise. Picking up a shovel and moving hundreds of pounds of snow, particularly after doing nothing physical for several months, can put a big strain on the heart. Pushing a heavy snow blower can do the same thing. Cold weather is another contributor because it can boost blood pressure, interrupt blood flow to part of the heart, and make blood more likely to form clots.

When a clot forms inside a coronary artery (a vessel that nourishes the heart), it can completely block blood flow to part of the heart. Cut off from their supply of life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients, heart muscle cells begin to shut down, and then die. This is what doctors call a myocardial infarction or acute coronary syndrome. The rest of us call it a heart attack.

The so-called classic signs of a heart attack are a squeezing pain in the chest, shortness of breath, pain that radiates up to the left shoulder and down the left arm, or a cold sweat. Other signs that are equally common include jaw pain, lower back pain, unexplained fatigue or nausea, and anxiety.

I figured I was tired because I had been shoveling for three hours, my left shoulder hurt because of the way I was tossing snow, and my back hurt from all the bending and lifting. I felt confident about my self-diagnosis, but would have changed it in an instant if something else started bugging me. (Click here to read “Chest pain: A heart attack or something else?” from the May 2010 Harvard Heart Letter.)

If you need to clear away snow, keep in mind that this activity can be more strenuous than exercising full throttle on a treadmill. That’s no problem if you are healthy and fit. But it can be dangerous if you aren’t. As I mentioned in the December 2010 issue of the Heart Letter, a study from the University of Virginia Medical Center suggests that anyone who has received an artery-opening stent in the preceding year or so might want to be especially careful about clearing snow.

Here are some tips for safe shoveling:

  • Warm up your muscles before starting.
  • Shovel many light loads instead of fewer heavy ones.
  • Take frequent breaks.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Don’t feel that you need to clear every speck of snow from your property.
  • Head indoors right away if your chest starts hurting, you feel lightheaded or short of breath, your heart starts racing, or some other physical change makes you nervous. If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 or your local emergency number.

If you are out of shape or worried about your heart, hire a teenage neighbor. He or she could use the money, and probably the exercise.

Comments:

  1. Alexander

    Thank you.

  2. Glen Salem

    I work at the maintenance department of a large elderly complex in CT. We do the snow removal for the whole complex. When I started we had 8 or 10 people working 22 acres of sidewalks and parking areas. With cutbacks, this storm, we had 2 people shoveling with a third person arriving 2 and a half hours later. We shoveled for a little over 8 hours. The man I worked with from the beginning of the snow storm is 65 years old. I am 58 and the fellow that came after is 30. My 2 questions are. How long or how much time is too much time for us to be shoveling snow. Years ago we would finish this 9 inch snow fall in one 8 hour day. Since we only had 3 shoveling snow it took two full days of work. I did not go in the second day because I couldn’t close my left hand and strong leg cramps. My second question is, do you know of any job openings for a 58 year old maintenance man after I complain. Thank you for a great article.

  3. Paulita Bochat

    I appreciate your post, it is interesting and compelling. I have found my way here through Google, I shall get back once more :)

  4. evan

    Well the best way to do that is get a nice truck, some winter tires and a plow no need for that back strain :)

  5. Peter

    Many Americans are at that stage where they haven’t exercised in months or even years. I agree to the fact that if you aren’t healthy and fit it can be potentially life threatening shoveling a big driveway. That is why snow blowers are invented because we have to accommodate for these people, especially elderly citizens. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of elderly people will increase dramatically, by doubling what it is now by 2050. I say a snowblower is a lot easier, a lot less strain on your muscles and back than a shovel.

  6. Indraw

    This could possibly pertains to lack of training and knowledge among the women in under developed countries. I really like the data on shoveling snow, I didn’t know that this could give you heart attack. Particularly if you are not very fit, I live in England and we get alot of snow. I usually should shovel it away and I am not very fit so I will probably be very cautious when I’m doing this. Thank so much for this wonderful information.

  7. Christi

    Well the winter is almost here now. Last year it was not that much of snow (luckily) but you never know what happens this time.
    For those who are left handed, must take care of the left shoulder pain this season.

  8. Jevaughn Brown

    It’s articles like this that make me say I’m never migrating away from my beautiful little *tropical* country of Jamaica to anywhere north of Georgia – Or if I do, I’m definitely moving BACK when I get up in years. :-) In all seriousness this article brings up a fact that I can’t recall seeing discussed before. If hospital ERs actually gear up with certainty for more heart attack cases after blizzards, it’s very important that awareness is raised about this health issue with winter closing in again now. And most people, let alone older persons, are sedentary couch athletes these days so a lot of people are in the risk group. I’m going to share this for those of my friends and family not living in such sunny climes as mine.

    Jevaughn Brown
    [URL removed by moderator]

  9. Mitch

    I found that cracking back back on my own with the help of a swiss exercise ball really helped. Here is where I found the stretches that seemed to help me: http://www.natural-sciatic-relief.com/2011/05/how-to-crack-your-back-properly-and-safely/ I still do them every day and it’s really helped my back start to feel better instead of constantly aching all the time.

    • Gale J Wozinski RN

      While I wouldn’t condone “cracking your back” as a fix for back pain, the exercise ball can be good for those that want to stretch and strengthen their back.

  10. Mike Sutherland

    After my wife had heart surgery some years ago she started to develop sciatica pain. We think it was triggered by some of the drugs she was on and from being laid up in bed for so long. And thank goodness we don’t have to shovel snow out here in california! Hahaha
    I have been helping my wife through her massive sciatica pain for years now. I currently do physical therapy with other who suffer also.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  11. MP Sidhu

    very informative article.I am surely going to pass on this knowledge to my son and son-in-law who do a lot of shoveling in winters.

  12. Mike

    The elderly are much more exposed to heart attacks resulting from such activity, but in many cases are not aware of it. Great article, thank you for sharing with us.

    Mike
    [URL removed by moderator]

  13. spondylolisthesis

    Thank you very much for sharing such an informative thought! I was not aware of this fact before I went through your post.

  14. ken dodd

    I love the information on shoveling snow, I did not know that this could give you heart attack. Especially if you are not very fit, I live in England and we get alot of snow. I normally have to shovel it away and I am not very fit so I will be very careful when I am doing this. Thank so much for this wonderful information.

    [URL removed by moderator]

  15. Bob Ruiz

    BAH-HUMBUG! I hate snow and anything associated with it! ie: shovels, cold weather, ice, cloudy-nasty-ugly days, etc.
    Give me the Bahamas any day!

    • Patrick J. Skerrett
      P.J. Skerrett

      Bob — I hear you. But then there’s the hush of a cross-country ski trail on a crisp blue day, sledding with kids, a pack of birds at the feeder, a quiet fire in the fireplace. They make up for some of the hassle. Still, if my company said I could do my job from the Bahamas, I’d be there in a second. Did someone mention hurricanes?

      Pat Skerrett

  16. www.bookstoreadbeforeyoudie.com

    Shoveling snow can bring some pain at your back and it’s really exhausting. To avoid this i must follow your tips. This article is very informative, thanks for sharing.

    [URL removed by moderator]

  17. Carolyn Thomas

    “Snow shoveling is a known trigger for heart attacks.”

    Well, yes and no. It may well be true for people who already have a history of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Journal of Cardiology paper that you quote (August 15, 2010): “These findings suggest that in typically sedentary individuals with cardiac risk factors or histories of coronary artery disease, snow shoveling may trigger ST elevation myocardial infarction and therefore should be avoided”

    But for the average person with no history of heart disease, as Dr. Sharonne Hayes of Mayo Clinic wrote for The National Coalition For Women With Heart Disease: “All heart attack patients have had an underlying condition that caused the attack. Most heart attacks in fact are 20-30 years in the making. But about half of all heart attack survivors, however, mistakenly blame the attack on one specific event — such as extreme exertion.” More on this at “Can Exercise Trigger A Heart Attack?” at HEART SISTERS – http://myheartsisters.org/2009/07/11/exercise-trigger/

    It might also be helpful to clarify here that although “the so-called classic signs of a heart attack are a squeezing pain in the chest”, the reality is that up to 40% of heart attack survivors report NO chest symptoms at all. Women in particular may report very vague MI symptoms compared to men’s stereotypical “Hollywood Heart Attack”.

    • Patrick J. Skerrett
      P.J. Skerrett

      Carolyn — Good points. Heart attacks, like strokes, sometimes seem to come out of the blue, but are usually the end result of years-long damage to the arteries. You are also right that there’s often more to a heart attack than chest pain. That’s why I included a link to our article on chest pain. (Can’t fit everything into a 500-word post!)

  18. Ben Halonen

    P.J.: Elderly people (ages 60-70’s) use “yooper scoops” in Northern Michigan for decades. These people shovel snow almost daily as they get 200-300″ of snow every winter. These people never get sore or hurt. Why, because they use these unique shovels called yooper scoopers. You would find these people and snow shovels fancinating.