Don't Let Fall and Winter Outdoor Work Wreak Havoc on Your Health

Cleaning up piles of leaves and heaps of snow can cause more pain than just a headache. While these seasonal activities may seem mundane, they can be dangerous.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons advises that snow shoveling and leaf raking can pose threats to the back, shoulders and wrists, if proper precautions are not taken.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were more than 73,000 snow shoveling-related and 22,000 raking-related injuries treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctors' offices and clinics in 2003. The potential for an orthopaedic injury is high, whether one shovels and rakes routinely, or only once or twice a year.

"The improper of use of yard tools, combined with overextension and overexertion of muscles, increases your susceptibility to musculoskeletal injuries," said Robert W. Bucholz, M.D., president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "When shoveling or raking, don't twist your body, but instead, use your legs to shift your weight, switching sides frequently."

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons offers the following tips for safe raking and snow shoveling:

  • Check with your doctor. Because these activities place high stress on your heart, you should always talk with your physician before raking or shoveling. If you have a medical condition or do not exercise regularly, you might want to hire someone to remove the leaves or snow.
  • Pace yourself. Raking and shoveling are aerobic activities, comparable to weightlifting. Take frequent breaks and replenish fluids to prevent dehydration, which affects muscles. If you experience chest pain, shortness of breath or other signs of a heart attack, seek emergency care, such as by calling 9-1-1.
  • Rake or shovel early and often. Begin when a light covering of leaves or snow is on the ground. Before you begin these physical activities, warm-up your muscles for 10 minutes with light exercise.
  • See what you are raking or shoveling. Do not let a hat or scarf block your vision. Watch out for large rocks, branches, tree stumps, ice patches and uneven surfaces. Avoid falls by wearing shoes/boots that have slip-resistant soles.
  • Use a rake or shovel that feels comfortable for your height and strength. Avoid using a rake or shovel that is too heavy or too long. Space your hands on the tool grip to increase your leverage.
  • Push the snow instead of lifting it, but if you must lift, do it properly. Squat with your legs apart, knees bent and back straight. Lift with your legs, without bending at the waist. Scoop small amounts of snow into the shovel and walk to where you want to dump it. Holding a shovelful of snow with your arms outstretched puts too much weight on your spine. Never remove deep snow all at once; do it piecemeal.
  • Do not throw the leaves or snow over your shoulder or to the side. This requires a twisting motion that stresses your back.
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