Snow is fast approaching and if you believe the weather reports this year, there will be a lot of it! For many of us this means cold mornings donned in toque and mitts, shoveling the lane way. For an increasing majority of the population, this is the hardest physical labor we engage in. Which leads us to our topic today – Low back pain from snow shoveling!
There are many ways back pain can be caused – a pulled muscle, torn tendon, disc bulge, nerve entrapment, facet irritation, and other less easily identifiable causes. Today we are going to talk about a strategy of movement that can help prevent all of these problems before they occur – Spinal Stability.
The spine is inherently an unstable structure. It is made up of many blocks (called vertebra) stacked on top of one another, separated by squishy jelly-filled discs. Just imagine balancing a stack of blocks on Jell-O!
When it comes to keeping our spine stable, it is our musculature that prevents it from collapsing. This musculature is arranged like a set of guy-wires similar to those you see on cell phone towers. These wires add compression and stability along the spine in every direction. When bending or twisting the spine, tension in the muscles needs to be let out and/or tightened up appropriately to avoid failure. To accomplish this very difficult and highly coordinated task, the muscles must work harder.
The further away your spinal vertebra (blocks) are from an upright position the harder your muscles (guy wires) have to work to maintain stability.
When everything is working well, bending, swinging a bat, or picking up your child is no problem. However, when we combine bending and twisting with the already demanding job of shovelling snow, a loss in stability can occur. This can lead to a momentary collapse in integrity, resulting in an injury.
So how do I avoid an injury?
The best thing you can do for your back is to reduce the load on your stability muscles.
One solution is obvious – pay the neighbour boy to shovel for you! If this is not an option and you are stuck pushing the white stuff this season, then we must keep our spinal blocks in an upright and locked position. Here’s how:
- Start by placing one fist on the middle of your chest (your sternum)
- Place another fist on the lowest part of your belly (resting on your pubic bone)
- Stand up tall and note the distance between your two fists
- Without moving your fists, bend over as if reaching for your toes
Did your two fists come closer together? If they did that means that the spine between your rib cage and your pelvis (lumbar spine) is rounded/flexed meaning your muscles had to work a little harder than they needed to, and you may be at a higher risk for injury.
When performing heavy or repetitive work – like shoveling snow – you need to help give stability to your spinal musculature. So let’s try again!
- Hold your back tight, pivot at the hip and bend over without allowing your fists to come closer together or further apart
- Practice that a few times
- Now try sitting down in to a chair without allowing your fists to come together
This is what is meant when they say ‘lift with your legs and not your back!
Once you have it, practice with a shovel and soon you’ll be ready no matter what the weather throws at you.
Aaron Coulthard, M.OMSc