Does shoveling snow increase the risk of heart attacks?

Posted by David Larson, MD, Ridgeview Medical Center Emergency Physicians & Consultants, P.A. on Jan 8, 2019 1:30:00 PM

AdobeStock_101842007-1It is that time of year again in Minnesota when we start to get those heavy, wet snow falls (or as we say, a “heart attack snowfall”). It seems that every year we see or hear reports of someone having a heart attack while shoveling snow. Is there really an increased risk of having a heart attack from shoveling snow?

A recent Canadian study did suggest that there is an association between shoveling and heart attacks in men over 50 who have cardiovascular risk factors, (such as smoking, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol), a history of prior cardiovascular disease or in those who lead a sedentary life style.

Why does this occur?

Snow shoveling is a demanding, cardiovascular exercise. Heavy lifting with the arms causes a rapid rise in blood pressure and heart rate (just like going full speed on a treadmill). Also, working in cold weather can cause constriction of blood vessels which can reduce oxygen supply to the heart muscle. This combination can put a great deal of stress on the heart. If you are healthy and young, this may not be an issue. But if you have a history of heart failure, high blood pressure, previous known coronary artery disease or are not used to exercising, you may be at risk.  If you fall into this category it might be prudent to hire a young neighbor to clear your driveway, especially with large, heavy snowfalls.

Can you reduce your risk of a heart attack when shoveling?

If you still want to do it yourself, here are a few tips to help reduce your risk:

  1. Start with light exercise before you begin shoveling. This will warm up your muscles and increase your heart rate gradually.
  2. Avoid shoveling right after a heavy meal.
  3. Don’t drink alcohol before or immediately after shoveling.
  4. Use a small shovel or consider a snow thrower (pushing a heavy snow thrower can also be strenuous).
  5. Dress in layers to avoid hypothermia (low body temperature) or overheating. Keep your head and neck covered to prevent excessive heat loss.
  6. Consider wearing a face mask, especially in extremely cold temperatures or if you have a history of angina or lung problems.
  7. Take frequent warm up breaks (e.g., every 15-30 minutes).
  8. Listen to your body. If you start to feel lightheaded, short of breath, or nauseated-stop and rest.
  9. Recognize symptoms of a heart attack and call 911 immediately. It may be embarrassing (especially for men) to call 911. But if you are having a heart attack, the quicker that treatment is started, the better chance of saving your heart muscle and your life.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

  1. Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes. It may feel like pressure, heaviness or squeezing.
  2. Pain or chest discomfort radiating to one or both arms, jaw or back.
  3. Ongoing shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  4. Persistent dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea/vomiting, or sweating.

Pay attention to your limbs as well as your heart when clearing snow

One more thing. For those using a snow thrower on a warm day with wet heavy snow, please do not use your hand to clear a clogged auger or shoot. Always turn the motor off first and always use a tool to clear a snow clog. It seems that our hand surgeons are always busy after a wet snowfall.

Medical and health information presented here is intended to be general in nature, and should not be viewed as a substitute for professional advice. Please consult with a health care professional for all matters relating to personal medical and health care issues. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 

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