ThedaCare Cardiologist explains ways to stay safe while doing snow removal
“This is heart attack snow,” a friend posted on Facebook after a recent heavy snowfall, warning his friends to be careful while shoveling.
“That’s excellent advice,” said Simone Fearon, MD, physician leader with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care. “Snow shoveling raises your heart rate and blood pressure more quickly and more dramatically than other types of exercises. And because it involves moving your arms a lot, it’s more strenuous than other exercises.”
Dr. Fearon also noted that because snow removal happens in a cold environment, blood vessels constrict more, making hearts work harder. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 100 people, typically men, have a heart attack during or just after shoveling snow each year in the United States.
Dr. Fearon offers these suggestions for those who must shovel snow: Exercise daily to prepare your body for shoveling. Most people should get 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week. Working your heart regularly prepares it for shoveling. Warm up your muscles before heading outside – walk in place or stretch to get blood circulating and muscles moving. Take breaks while shoveling to give your heart a rest. Make sure to stay hydrated. People can become dehydrated in cold weather. Drink water before and after shoveling.
Dr. Fearon noted that the signs of a heart attack while shoveling are similar to any heart attack: shortness of breath, pain in the middle or left side of the chest, tightness in the chest, and pain in the shoulder and arm or heaviness in the chest.
“Many times, people think they may have pulled a muscle or have acid reflux, but those symptoms can definitely signal a heart attack,” she explained. “Not everyone experiences a heart attack in the same way. If you have any of these symptoms or other unusual symptoms while shoveling snow or shortly thereafter, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention.”
She warned that anyone with cardiac risk factors should be very cautious about shoveling snow, especially men over the age of 40, those who are smokers, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
Dr. Fearon explained that heart issues aren’t the only health concerns associated with snow shoveling. Back injuries, hypothermia and falls with injuries to wrists, hips, spine, neck and head can also occur while shoveling or blowing snow.
ThedaCare offers these suggestions to lessen your risk of injury while removing snow this winter, noting that bending and twisting motions put people at a higher risk for injury: Keep good posture – a straight back – and use your legs and arms to lift the snow rather than your back. Avoid jerking or twisting.
Be aware of slippery conditions – walk like a penguin taking small, shuffling steps rather than longer steps in slippery situations. Falls can be particularly dangerous for older people as broken backs and hips can lead to other complications. Head and neck injuries can be life threatening to anyone. Dress appropriately for the conditions to prevent hypothermia.
“We live in Wisconsin,” said Dr. Fearon. “There is little we can do to avoid dealing with snow issues. I recommend people find some outdoor activity they enjoy during the winter – skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing or just enjoying a walk in a park or around your neighborhood – all of these activities are great exercises that help our hearts and the rest of our muscles adapt to cold weather. Dress appropriately, wear footwear that provides good traction, and then get outside and look for the beauty that winter provides.”