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Proper snow shoveling can stave off injury

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 30 2013 2:40 p.m. MST

Andrew Meza shovels snow at the home of LaDawn Powell in Murray, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. In the background, Andrew's son Mike Meza spreads ice melt.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

MURRAY — There's a right way and a wrong way to shovel snow and the wrong way is apparently landing hundreds in painful situations along the Wasatch Front.

Already, The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital's Back and Neck Center has seen a 60 percent increase in patience over the same month last year, as patients are coming in with neck or back pain due to snowfall-related injuries.

This January has ushered in record snowfalls, whereas last year, the season remained fairly dry.

"Muscle strains are the most common," said Dr. Justin Hohl, an orthopedic surgeon at TOSH. He said proper shoveling techniques and preparation can stave off painful soft tissue injuries, as well as untimely disc herniations due to improper snow shoveling.

TOSH is teaming up with individuals in the community to begin its "Shovel Brigade," where anyone interested in learning the proper technique and pledging to help their disabled or at-risk neighbors with snow removal can receive a free snow shovel.

The average shovel weighs about 16 pounds loaded with snow, said TOSH physical therapist Aaron Swalberg. After a minute of shoveling, the weightlifting amounts to 200 pounds and within 10 minutes, it's possible to have moved up to 2,000 pounds of wet snow.

"That's a significant weight to bear without the proper prevention and preparation before the activity," Swalberg said.

An active lifestyle can help prepare a person for better snow-shoveling ability, as well as flexibility, especially in a person's hips, he said. As cold temperatures accompany snowfall, a brief warmup is necessary to avoid injury, as well as proper hydration, clothing in layers, and shoes, for stability.

"Slips and falls make up one of the biggest reasons we end up seeing people," Swalberg said, adding that an average of more than 11,000 back and neck injuries are reported locally each year due to improper or prolonged snow shoveling.

He said to "pace yourself," keep the load close to the body and avoid bending and twisting, "especially at the same time." Safe shoveling involves bending at the knees, keeping the back straight and letting rear and thigh muscles do all the work, reducing strain on the heart and back.

A long shovel with a wide spade, Swalberg said, should be used for pushing snow, while a short-handled, smaller one is best for lifting and throwing snow.

In case of injury, Hohl said rest, ice application and anti-inflammatory medications are often the best treatment. But after you "give yourself a few days," further attention is often needed. The clinic and the Intermountain Spine Institute, which has also seen an influx of patients recently, can help patients address injuries, including a prescription of physical therapy to strengthen the area and prevent it from happening again.

A more intensive treatment plan, including an MRI, is seldom necessary, but Hohl said a person is always better safe than sorry.

And with the snow still falling in much of northern Utah, the timing of the shovel brigade proved to be beneficial. Intermountain's supply of 100 specially marked shovels quickly disappeared Wednesday. An additional 150 shovels will be available Thursday at 9 a.m., on a first-come, first-served basis, officials said.

Anyone interested can sign a pledge to help others and get a shovel at the north physical therapy entrance at TOSH, 5770 S. 300 East, in Murray.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com Twitter: wendyleonards

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