January 25, 2024

Upper extremities safety urged following recent winter storms

The blade of a shovel

MADISON, Wis. UW Health orthopedic and rehabilitation therapists typically see an increase in hand, arm and shoulder injuries following snowstorms, and the weather of the past few weeks was no exception.

Following periods of heavy snowfall, patients visit UW Health for upper extremity injuries that range from wrist fractures from falls to increased arthritic pain, frostbite and even traumatic hand wounds related to improper use of snowblowers, according to Alyssa Villarreal, occupational therapist, UW Health.

“Accidents can happen to anyone, but with these types of injuries, the good news is many of them can be preventable,” she said.

The work of preventing hand, elbow, shoulder and wrist injuries starts before stepping outside to lift a shovel or fire up the snowblower, Villarreal said.

“Ensure your body is ready for activity by taking a warm shower or engaging in light movement activities, such as unloading a warm dishwasher or walking through the home because this helps loosen joints and increases blood flow to your arms, back and legs before heading out into the cold,” she said.

Selecting the right protection for the hands and upper body is also important, according to Villarreal.

Choose well-insulated gloves that are not too bulky as gloves that are too thick might require tighter finger grip, increasing strain on small joint spaces, she said.

Gloves should have a tacky or grippy material on the fingertips and palms for better grip and be in good condition without holes or tears to reduce the risk of frostbite.

Once outside, it’s important to understand how to use all necessary equipment.

“For a snowblower, make sure the handle height and size are right for your body, keep hands and feet away from moving parts, and never reach your hand into the chute,” Villarreal said. “Turn off the machine and disengage the clutch before clearing snow.”

When shoveling, consider an ergonomic or curved handle that allows the legs to do more heavy work, reducing strain on the arms and back. Choose a shovel with an appropriate blade, for example, metal for ice and plastic for regular snow, to balance the weight being lifted.

Also, focus on pushing snow instead of lifting to engage more muscles in the body. During heavy snowstorms, work in small intervals throughout the day to lighten overall loads. Take breaks as needed, especially when the intensity is high, Villarreal said.

“We can’t predict the duration of winter storms or snowfall amounts, but following these tips can help prevent unnecessary pain and injuries to your shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands,” she said. “We want everyone to enjoy a pain-free snow removal experience.”