Shoveling poses heart risks: What to know as heavy snow approaches

Doctor shares what to watch out for as snowstorm approaches SE Michigan

Gerry Groh of Annapolis, Md., shovels a sidewalk in Annapolis, Md., Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (Susan Walsh, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

DETROIT – Unless you’re new to Michigan, snow shouldn’t be a big surprise -- even in large amounts.

What may be a surprise to some people is that even if you’ve dealt with it before, the first few snowfalls of the season are especially dangerous. The reason is simple: Your heart is nearly a year older than the last time you shoveled a bunch of snow.

And the snow headed for Southeast Michigan Thursday afternoon into Friday morning is expected to be wet, making it very heavy and difficult to shovel.

Live Updates: Winter storm warning today in Metro Detroit: Track radar, forecasts

Most people don’t really think about how much weight you’re moving when you clear a driveway. One foot of settled snow on a 15 by 30-foot driveway comes out to about 3 or 4 tons of snow.

Shoveling snow is stressful on your heart, your blood pressure and your heart rate.

“We do see a higher number of patients the second day after the snow,” said Dr. Sam Kazziha, chief of cardiovascular services at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital. “Snow can be really an inducer, or a cause, for a heart attack, no question about it.”

Even before you start shoveling, just being in the cold begins to challenge your body: Breathing in cold air can constrict your airways. At the same time, your skin is diverting blood to conserve heat. All those things increase the burden on your heart.

Then, you begin to shovel.

“When you’re shoveling snow, blood pressure can go up significantly higher,” Kazziha said. “Also, your heart rate can go higher -- specifically, if you are deconditioned or you have not been doing exercise regularly.”

Health experts advise that you treat shoveling like you would any serious exercise. Warm up first, avoid drinking alcohol and don’t shovel after eating a meal.

Full forecast: First rain, then 4-8 inches of snow, ice possible

“For people who are interested in shoveling snow should not do it the first thing in the morning because this is the highest rate of a heart attack,” Kazziha said.

You should take a break from shoveling if you experience:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest discomfort
  • Jaw pain, upper back pain or pain radiating into your arms
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness

“Bring somebody else to do it for you, don’t put yourself at risk if you know you are at high risk. If you’re going to do it, do it in segments and in short periods,” Kazziha said.

Doctors still see heart attacks when people are using snowblowers, too.

Related: Metro Detroit school closings likely Friday as several inches of snow, ice approach

About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.