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Providers Weigh-In: Stay Safe and Healthy While Shoveling Snow this Winter!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

With winter approaching soon, it will not be long before the snow starts piling up on walkways and driveways. Data shows that thousands of people get injured each year shoveling snow. Shoveling snow can be hard on your body – particularly on your heart, leading to heart attacks and strokes.  The American Heart Association warns that physical exertion during snow shoveling in colder weathers causes arteries to constrict and decrease blood supply, increasing the chances of a heart attack.  

Dr. Rebecca Schuetz

Rebecca Schuetz, MSN
Heart Failure Nurse Practitioner

Snow removal can be done safely by taking care. The following is a list of practical tips that can make shoveling safe.

  • Frequent breaks: Give yourself breaks during shoveling to prevent overloading your heart. Pay attention to how your body feels during these breaks.
  • Use a small shovel or consider using a snow thrower: Lifting heavy snow may raise blood pressure acutely. It is safer to lift less snow more times rather than heavy amounts fewer times. Whenever possible, simply push the snow instead of lifting it.
  • Pay attention to your body: Learn the warning signs of a heart attack. Listen to your body. Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, get it checked out. Time matters! Don't wait to call 9-1-1.
  • Avoid heavy meals before and soon after: Large meals can put extra stress on your heart. So, don't eat a heavy meal prior or just after the shoveling.
  • Don't consume alcohol prior or soon after shoveling. Alcohol can increase the sensation of warms and can cause the person to underestimate the strain on their body.
  • Know about the dangers of hypothermia. Heart failure causes most deaths in hypothermia. Hypothermia can be prevented by dressing in layers of warm clothing to form sufficient insulation by trapping air between the layers. To prevent heat loss through the head, wear a hat.
  • Consult a doctor. If you have a medical condition or don't exercise regularly or are above middle age, meet with a doctor prior to the first snowfall.

"Physical exertion increases the workload of the heart. In addition, cold temperatures can also make the heart work harder. During the winter months, activities such as shoveling snow can strain the heart and therefore increase the risk of a heart attack, especially for someone with a heart condition such as hypertension or heart failure. However, physical activity under the guidance of a health care provider is beneficial to having a healthy heart because it can lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. It is recommended to check with your health care provider prior to engaging in activities that are physically exerting," says Rebecca Schuetz, Heart Failure Nurse Practitioner at UI Health.

Signs to be aware of for a heart attack:

  • Discomfort in the chest
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body 
  •  Shortness of breath
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness       

Calling 9-1-1 is almost always the fastest way to get a lifesaving treatment. Emergency medical services (EMS) staff can begin treatment when they arrive. They are also trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped. Patients with chest pain who arrive by ambulance usually receive faster treatment at the hospital, too.