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Published on December 07, 2015

man shoveling snow

Don’t Let Winter Become a Pain in the Back

Winter can be a pain — a pain in the back, that is! Slips on the ice, hanging Christmas lights and shoveling snow from the driveway, sidewalk, porch, front steps (how does this stuff get everywhere?!) can all cause or aggravate back pain.

“About 80 percent of people have some back pain every year,” said Brian Wienk, PT, ScD, COMT, Avera Physical Therapist. “However, people with chronic back pain — pain that lasts more than three months — tend to have more symptoms or injuries during the winter.”

An injury from shoveling, for example, might be a muscle strain or a slipped disk. The cold can also aggravate the symptoms of sciatica or arthritis. If the pain radiates into the leg, it could be a serious sign of nerve compression. Besides pain, a person may experience numbness or tingling.

“In minor instances, pain should subside within a couple of days with light exercise, ice and pain medication,” said Wienk. “If it goes on any longer than that, see a doctor or physical therapist.”

Physical therapists use a variety of methods to address pain and tingling. Electrical stimulation, hot and cold treatments, soft tissue mobilization and joint mobilization relieve discomfort and promote healing. Your therapist may also recommend a series of gentle stretching and strengthening exercises to keep the muscles flexible and supportive.

Wienk advises a proactive approach to prevent winter-related back pain from occurring in the first place. Here are a few of his tips:

  1. Warm up. Shoveling in the morning can be a great “waker-upper,” but your body isn’t prepared for lifting, bending and twisting. Stretch your side by bending to the left and right. Put your hands on your hips and bend backward several times. Even a quick walk warms your muscles.
  2. Take breaks often. Your body is constantly bent forward while shoveling, so putting your hands on your hips and bending backward counteracts that strain.
  3. Don’t overload your shovel with snow and keep the toss close to your body. “Heaving a 10-pound load a distance from your body is like a 100-pound strain on your spine,” said Wienk.
  4. Wear appropriate clothing. Dressing in layers will keep you warm and prevent your joints and muscles from becoming stiff.
  5. Wear treaded footwear while outside to prevent falls.
  6. Stay active. Walking, swimming and biking are great ways to build muscles and endurance. Even during episodes of back pain, take a walk to keep muscles warm and ward off stiffness.

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