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February 27, 2024

The Hidden Dangers of Shoveling Snow

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Jan 16, 2024

As winter storms blanket many parts of the country in thick, heavy snow, the task of shoveling sidewalks and driveways poses serious health risks that should not be ignored. Shoveling snow significantly increases the strain on the heart and can trigger dangerous cardiac events in vulnerable groups. As forecasters predict more snowfall over the coming weeks, experts are underscoring important safety precautions people must take and warning signs to watch out for when clearing snow.

Shoveling Triggers a Surge in Heart Attacks and Fatalities

Every winter, hospitals report a noticeable spike in heart attacks and deaths related to snow removal. The American Heart Association estimates that between 1990 and 2006, an average of 11,500 injuries and medical emergencies related to shoveling were treated each year in the U.S.

Older adults face the highest risk of suffering a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest while shoveling.

“People often don’t think of snow shoveling as a rigorous form of exercise, but it puts high demands on your heart,” said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Health. “The combination of colder temperatures and physical exertion increases stress on the heart.”

Factors that can further heighten the risk of heart events during shoveling include:

  • Age – Adults over the age of 55 face the greatest risk, especially those who lead a generally sedentary lifestyle.

  • Unaccustomed overexertion – Infrequent intense physical activity sharply raises the risk compared to those who exercise regularly. The risk is highest at the start of winter.

  • Cold temperatures – Constricted blood vessels and thicker, sludgy blood place more strain on the cardiovascular system.

  • Medical conditions – Those with a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes are most vulnerable.

Shoveling snow is equal to or even riskier than some competitive sports due to the burst of intensive labor. According to Barry Franklin, director of preventative cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at Beaumont Health, “the physical effort associated with snow shoveling during the winter months exceeds the levels of physical activity on a treadmill or playing basketball for some.”

Sudden Surges in Blood Pressure While Shoveling Can Trigger Lethal Cardiac Events

Lifting heavy piles of wet snow repeatedly places intense levels of physical stress on the body unlike typical daily activities. This leads to surges in systolic blood pressure – the pressure in blood vessels as the heart contracts to pump blood – which leaves people vulnerable to heart attacks and irregular heart rhythms.

“When you’re shoveling snow, your heart needs more oxygen but the cold air makes it harder to breathe,” explained Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, an American Heart Association volunteer and cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Additionally, picking up a heavy shovel full of wet, packed snow raises your blood pressure drastically. That combination of increased demand on the heart and constricted arteries from the cold increases your risk.”

The most serious types of heart events brought on by snow shoveling are:

Myocardial infarction – Also referred to as a heart attack, which occurs when blood flow to the heart is abruptly blocked causing permanent damage to the heart muscle if not treated immediately. Chest pain and shortness of breath are telltale symptoms.

Condition Symptoms
Myocardial Infarction Chest pain, shortness of breath, pain in arms/shoulder, nausea

Ventricular fibrillation – An irregular, chaotic heart rhythm which causes the heart to suddenly stop beating and pump blood effectively. It results in sudden cardiac death within minutes if not treated right away.

Sudden cardiac arrest – An electrical malfunction which causes the heart to go into an abnormal rhythm (arrhythmia) and be unable to pump adequately. Deprived of oxygen, brain damage can occur within 4-6 minutes.

“When your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen because it’s working harder in the cold, that lack of oxygen can trigger an irregular heart rhythm or even sudden cardiac death,” Steinbaum said.

These events underscore why it’s critical to stop shoveling and call 911 immediately if you experience any concerning symptoms. Delaying treatment by even just 5-10 minutes can dramatically reduce the chance of surviving.

Steinbaum noted that sudden cardiac death while shoveling claims the lives of typically healthy middle aged men as often as senior citizens with heart conditions. “I see patients all the time who have survived cardiac arrest from snow shoveling,” she said.

6 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Heart Problems While Shoveling

Here are essential tips from medical experts on safely shoveling to protect your heart health:

1. Check with your doctor – Individuals with heart conditions or risk factors should consult their physician before shoveling snow, even if it’s a small amount. Certain heart medications can also interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature and increase vulnerability to cold.

2. Dress warmly – Wear layers and cover up extremities to avoid hypothermia and preserve body heat. Don’t ignore early signs of cold weather injuries like numbness, stinging, aching, or cramping which signal it’s time to go inside and warm up.

3. Warm up first – Before you head out, do 5-10 minutes of light exercise to get muscles warm and blood circulating. Try marching in place, walking around the house, or doing arm circles.

4. Shovel smart – Lift smaller loads, bend from your knees to reduce strain on the back, work slowly, and take frequent breaks. Pace yourself. Don’t rush to finish.

5. STOP immediately at any unusual symptoms – This includes chest tightness/pressure/pain, palpitations, lightheadedness, difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting. Call 911 if symptoms persist more than a few minutes after stopping. Delay can be fatal with heart events.

6. Avoid caffeine and smoking beforehand – Both place additional stress on the heart and can hinder blood flow.

Additionally, give yourself adequate time to recover between shoveling sessions spanning multiple days to allow inflammation and tiny muscle tears from exertion to heal.

How Seniors Can Stay Safe While Removing Snow

Seniors face amplified risks because the heart weakens with age and has less ability to handle surges in demand. Nearly 100,000 older adults are hospitalized annually due to snow shoveling injuries according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Bradley in the Department of Aging recommends seniors take special care by:

  • Using snow removal services or asking younger relatives and neighbors for help

  • Shovelling earlier after snowfall before snow packs down and turns icy

  • Pushing rather than lifting accumulated snow

  • Using a lightweight ergonomic shovel to reduce strain

  • Skipping shoveling if you have a respiratory condition or are currently sick

For those who must shovel, be sure to communicate your plans to loved ones or friends who can check in. Keep your cell phone in your pocket in case an emergency arises.

Lingering Subzero Temperatures Compound the Threat

Bitterly cold temperatures throughout January have plagued many regions in addition to heavy snowfall. “Your arteries constrict in the cold, causing blood pressure to rise as the heart pumps harder during exertion,” explained cardiologist Dr. Annabelle Santos Volgman. “That’s why heart attacks increase with snow shoveling.”

Frigid conditions threaten hypothermia and frostbite risk as extremities rapidly lose heat. Once deep body temperature drops, it further stresses the heart.

Older adults and those taking certain medications like beta blockers or antidepressants have hampered internal thermoregulation. Check frequently for signs of cold weather hazards like numbness, stinging skin, lack of coordination or drowsiness.

Watching for symptoms of hypothermia and stopping activity periodically to warm up are imperative protections while working outside.

Key Steps to Prepare Before the Next Snowstorm

Emergency physicians and cardiac specialists all emphasize avoiding shoveling is the best practice for those vulnerable to heart events.

For those at lower risk who must take on the task, preparation is key. Steps to take include:

  • Assembling safety gear – ice grippers for boots, phone/whistle, water, hats, gloves, face coverings, hand/toe warmers

  • Testing snow blowers and shovels in advance to uncover needed repairs

  • Stocking up on heart medications, prescriptions to avoid running out

  • Ensuring driveway and walkways have adequate lighting

  • Clearing areas before snow becomes heavily packed down

 

Another alternative is hiring local teenagers or young adults in the neighborhood looking to earn extra money while schools are closed. This allows them to provide an essential community service while minimizing health risks to older adults. Discuss pricing and payment options beforehand.

Ultimately avoiding the risks altogether is recommended for high risk groups like seniors and heart patients. Reach out early once snow is forecast so family, neighbors or paid services can make arrangements to assist.

Outlook Calls For Continued Harsh Winter Weather

Looking ahead, the overall weather pattern signals brutally cold temperatures and above average snow will continue plaguing the Midwest and Northeast in particular through February.

Senior meteorologist Dave Hennen cautions that “periods of extreme cold will continue, keeping snow dry and powdery at times, leading to blowing and drifting issues.”

These frigid conditions will further heighten risks for those having to clear freshly fallen powder or already accumulated ice and snow. Experts advise preparing now before the next expected storms.

Conclusion

Shoveling snow poses a hidden health hazard due to the strenuous physical activity combined with cold conditions which substantially increase strain on the heart. For vulnerable groups, the surge in blood pressure and demand can trigger fatal cardiac events. Warning signs to watch for mid-activity include chest and arm pain, nausea, vomiting and trouble breathing. Stopping immediately to call emergency help is critical. Preparation before storms, dressing appropriately with weather appropriate gear and pacing yourself during removal can aid safety. But avoiding the activity altogether remains the best option for high risk individuals through seeking assistance from others. More snow and lingering cold air still in the forecast means following precautions is essential over the next several weeks.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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