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DURHAM, N.C. -- With a winter blizzard expected to hit New York City this weekend and up to a foot of snow anticipated in much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, physical therapists at Duke University Medical Center are offering advice on the best ways to avoid potential back injuries from snow shoveling.

Kurt Brooks, PT, DScPT, in the Department of Physical Therapy & Occupational Therapy, said a variety of injuries can happen if shovelers do not properly prepare themselves for the task.

"When shoveling snow, it is always possible to pull a muscle if you're not watching for signs that you're putting yourself at risk," Brooks said. "You could also develop a sprain or strain, rupture or herniate a disc, and in some cases suffer from cardiac complications, such as a heart attack."

To minimize the risk of injury, Brooks advises that you:

  • lift with your knees, not with your back
  • slow down if you start to sweat
  • stay hydrated
  • take frequent breaks
  • take smaller loads, and avoid holding your breath while lifting
  • stop if you feel pain

Although the level of physical fitness determines how long and at what speed people shovel snow, Brooks said stretching before shoveling can benefit everyone. Lying down, pulling the knees to the chest and dropping the knees from side to side are a few easy ways to loosen the back muscles. A short walk and rotating the shoulders can also be helpful to warm up muscles prior to exertion.

Brooks said individuals should expect the normal post-exercise muscle soreness that can last between 18 to 36 hours. Alternating heat and ice can reduce the pain. However, if the pain persists for a week or more, contact a physician.