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Snow shoveling and heart attack: 9 important precautions

Posted on by Christopher L Hager, MD

 

Preparing for the first snow of winter should involve more than checking your supply of rock salt and getting the snow shovel out of the shed. Snow shoveling is fairly rigorous exercise. Take time to prepare your body by considering your heart attack risk and following 9 important precautions.

Why shoveling can hurt your heart

Every year during snowstorms, emergency rooms routinely evaluate patients who develop heart attacks. Research shows that shoveling snow leads to heart problems. Here’s why:

  • Cold air constricts blood vessels, reducing the oxygen supply to the heart.
  • Cold weather places more demands on the heart, which has to work harder to maintain body heat.
  • People who aren’t in shape and don’t warm up place an increased demand on their hearts when they shovel snow.
  • Pushing or lifting snow constricts blood vessels and raises pressure.

Are you at risk?

First, know your heart attack risk. If you fall into one of these groups, see your doctor before shoveling snow:

Beware of A.M. surge

If you haven’t been exerting yourself, don’t overdo it when you go out. Being aware is especially important in the morning hours, when most heart attacks occur—winter or otherwise—probably due to a rise in blood pressure (known as the “A.M. surge”), heart rate, and hormones that lower the threshold for heart problems.

Follow these 9 precautions:

  • Start slow so your cardiovascular system can adapt to the change in activity level.
  • Pace yourself. Shovel for 10 minutes at a time and let your body recover between stints.
  • Stay away from caffeine and nicotine during your rest periods because they put a burden on the heart.
  • Protect your nose, ears, hands and feet to keep your circulation going.
  • Walk a little before you go out. Warming up can minimize any strain on your cardiovascular system.
  • Remove small amounts of snow, rather than trying to lift huge shovels full of snow.
  • Push the snow instead of lifting it and throwing it.
  • If you must lift the shovel, be sure to bend at the knees and lift.
  • Don’t throw snow over your shoulder. Push forward and step in the direction you’re throwing.

Signs of heart attack

Even if you’ve taken all of the appropriate precautions, make sure you also know the warning signs of a heart attack—chest pain, shoulder, neck or arm pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, sweating or nausea.

If you experience any of these symptoms, stop immediately and seek emergency medical help.

Remember: Know your risks, go slowly, and stop at the first sign of trouble and seek immediate medical attention. Prepare for winter weather by knowing how to protect your heart.

 | Novara

Christopher Hager, MD, is a family medicine physician with Novara, a concierge primary care practice. Education: Undergraduate—Taylor University; Medical School—Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine; Residency—Lancaster General Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program.

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