When snow shoveling becomes dangerous: What you need to know

Shoveling snow can cause cardiac episodes such as heart attacks

A woman shoveling snow in Michigan (WDIV)

DETROIT – Depending on your age and health history, you may want to stay away from trying to shovel snow.

Each year, shoveling snow sends more than 11,000 people to the hospital. While most have orthopedic (back) injuries, 7 percent have cardiac problems, and many of these are heart attacks, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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The cold temperatures also increase the risk for heart attack because the arteries constrict and this increases blood pressure.

Who shouldn’t be shoveling?

Men are more at risk than women, but certain people with health problems have higher risk than others for a cardiac event while clearing walkways in wintry weather.

These include anyone who:

  • Is in poor physical condition
  • Has a history of heart disease, including heart attacks, heart failure and stroke
  • Has hypertension or diabetes

The greatest population at risk: Those who are recovering from a heart attack or being treated for heart failure. These groups should avoid snow shoveling entirely.

Still, because most people develop artery-narrowing plaque as they get older, the risk might go unacknowledged. When under high physical stress, the plaque can rupture and cause a heart attack — even if it was not significantly blocking the artery.

How to shovel safely

Fortunately, there are ways to guard your heart and reduce your likelihood of injury by taking the proper precautions before shoveling show.

Here’s how to do so safely:

Anticipate the elements

  • Dress warmly and in layers, especially if it’s below 25 degrees.
  • Avoid overdressing. This can lead to overheating — another way to stress the heart during exertion.
  • Shield your face and mouth with a scarf or mask. This kind of protection is essential because cold air striking the face triggers a reflex action: The cold causes a reflex constriction of the coronary arteries and an increase in blood pressure.

Don’t overdo it

  • Do a simple warmup, such as walking briskly, or shovel only small scoops of snow at first.
  • If the snow is light, consider putting away the shovel and using a broom.
  • If the snow is heavy, lighten the work — and the burden on your heart — by shoveling only small scoops so you are lifting less weight per scoop.
  • Take frequent breaks to lower your heart rate.

Listen to your body

  • Readjust your clothing if you feel too hot or cold.
  • If you’re feeling flushed and overexerted, stop shoveling, cool down briefly by marching in place and then go inside.

If you experience any of the following, discontinue shoveling immediately: shortness of breath, feeling weak or lightheaded, heart palpitations, or chest or arm discomfort. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish arm and chest pain from muscle strain and heart pain, so stop with the onset of any type of pain. (Thanks to University of Michigan Health for the health tips).

About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.