Deena Casiero, MD

We said goodbye to the warm weather of summer and just when the crisp breeze of fall became a reality, we begin to embrace the inevitable; winter will soon be upon us. We’ve been lucky so far, but next big snow could be right around the corner. Snow shoveling is a very underrated cause of winter health risks

A recent study published in an Emergency Medicine journal demonstrated that between 1990 and 2006 over 195,000 Americans were treated in emergency rooms for snow-shoveling related injuries. About two thirds of those patients were males and about 7% of those injuries were cardiac related problems.  All 1,647 deaths in the study were cardiac related.

The reason we see so many cardiac related problems during the act of snow shoveling is because this type of activity causes your heart rate to rise to dangerous levels after as little as two minutes of digging. This is particularly dangerous if you are someone who is already at risk for cardiac problems. The combination of heavy lifting and extremely cold temperatures are compounded and can cause blood vessel constriction and decreased blood flow to the heart. Blood vessels normally constrict in cold weather in attempts to divert blood from the extremities and keep our bodies warm. As a result, your blood pressure and heart rate rises causing more demand for blood to the heart muscle, but less supply.

The best advice for people with cardiac risk factors, (a history of a previous heart attack, diabetes, angina, high blood pressure, uncontrolled high cholesterol and/or strong family history of heart disease), is not to shovel snow at all. Even if you do not have any of these risk factors and choose to shovel you should:

  1. 1. Always be sure you are wearing a good pair of gloves.
  2. 2. Always be dressed appropriately as keeping your body warm can lower the cardiac risks.
  3. 3. Take your time and move slowly.
  4. 4. Try to shovel small amounts of snow at a time thereby decreasing the amount of weight you have to lift each time.

While shoveling, if you experience any chest pain or pressure or if you develop any shortness of breath out of proportion to the activity, you should stop immediately and call 911. Even if you feel you are fit enough to shovel your own driveway this winter, please be careful. A simple discussion with your doctor may help you determine if you are at risk for any complications during physical exertion. During the year, you should focus on maintaining a level of fitness that will allow you to shovel snow without much difficulty. The time for getting into shape is not during a snowstorm. In other words, stay in shape all year long! If you have not discussed with your physician your medical condition, your physical status or the level of activity that would be appropriate for your age, it may be time to start looking for someone else to do the shoveling or invest in a snow blower.