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Shoveling Snow Could Result in a Heart Attack

When snow starts falling, kids are jumping with excitement to get outside and play. You, on the other hand, may feel less joy since you have the back-breaking job of shoveling all that white stuff.

Although snow shoveling is often associated with orthopedic injuries to backs and shoulders, it’s also associated with another very serious health issue: Heart attacks.

“Over the years, it seems that at least one or two patients come into the hospital with the first snowfall with their first heart attack,” said Joseph Kraynak, MD, a Lansdale Hospital cardiologist. “In one study, out of 11,000 people that came to the hospital after shoveling snow, most were orthopedic injuries. But seven percent were major cardiac issues, many of them serious heart attacks.”

So what is it about shoveling snow that triggers heart attacks?

First of all, shoveling is a tough physical activity.

"Taken at face value, shoveling snow is a very good exercise, but it is a very strenuous exercise. It tends to raise your blood pressure significantly from the lifting and it's a real stress on your cardiovascular system,” Dr. Kraynak explained.

The physical exertion of snow shoveling not only increases the workload of your heart, but the temperature also increases the risk of a heart attack.

“Cold conditions tend to constrict blood vessels. So now we’re building up a perfect storm, so to speak,” he said.

When cold weather causes blood vessels to become tighter, it makes it more difficult for blood to pass through them.

“The people who tend to do this are middle age to older people who are out of shape. So what they do is go outside, expose themselves to an extreme exercise in extreme conditions [as] their first form of exercise [in a long time],” Dr. Kraynak described.

Before heading out into the weather to shovel, Dr. Kraynak advises that you examine your risk factors for a heart attack. Those risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, a lack of physical activity, tobacco use, age and family history as well as a previous heart attack.

“All of those risk factors will increase your risk of triggering a heart attack while shoveling,” he said.

So should you grab your shovel and get to work?

“Some purists would say if you’re 55 or older and not used to doing this and you’re not in good condition and you have these risk factors, you shouldn't be doing it. You have to evaluate your own risk of going into this situation. If you think it's safe for you and your doctor has given you the ok, go for it,” Dr. Kraynak stated.

If you do go out to shovel, there are some precautions Dr. Kraynak said you can take to make sure you don’t have a heart attack.

  • Dress warmly in layers
  • Warmup and stretch before going outside
  • Use an ergonomic lightweight shovel
  • Begin shoveling slowly
  • Make smaller shovel scoops, or push the snow rather than throwing it over your shoulder
  • Wait until later in the day when it warms up a little bit
  • Wear a scarf over your mouth and nose – this will cause you to breathe in warmer air, which is easier on your system than breathing in cold air.

“You also have to keep yourself hydrated. You’re still sweating while shoveling and you need to replenish those fluids,” he recommended.

You should also avoid drinking alcohol before heading out to shovel.

“[Alcohol] can kind of give you a sense that you're warmer than you are,” Dr. Kraynak said, which can lead you to become overexposed to the cold, putting you at risk of hypothermia.

If you think you’re having a heart attack, don’t delay calling 911 – it’s the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment.

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