When Shoveling Snow Is Bad For Your Heart
Henry Ford cardiologist warns this is a serious workout that can put some at risk for a heart attack.
Sam Kazziha, M.D., Chief of Cardiovascular Services at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Michigan.
Newswise DETROIT A Michigan snowfall can provide a beautiful wintry landscape. It also brings the chore of clearing it from your driveway and walkway. What may seem like a simple task, though, can also raise your risk for a heart attack.
Sam Kazziha, M.D., Chief of Cardiovascular Services at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital, said the combination of snow and cold weather can cause your arteries to spasm and constrict and lead to potentially harmful consequences.
During the snow season we do get heart attack victims who were exposed to the cold weather while doing strenuous activities like shoveling snow, said Dr. Kazziha. Surprisingly, he said, most of these people are middle-aged who ignore their pre-existing risks for a heart attack.
Studies cited by the American Heart Association have shown that as temperatures drop during winter months, the death rates from circulatory problems, coronary heart disease, heart attacks and strokes rise. Other studies found that the more it snowed, the more men had heart attacks, suggesting it may be connected to snow shoveling.
Most people approach snow shoveling as a quick burst of hard work, which can increase their risk for a heart attack, in the right conditions, Dr. Kazziha said, adding this applies to both men and women.
Why Do So Many People Die Shovelling Snow
Every winter, about 100 people in the US die while shovelling snow. Why?
A study looking at data from 1990 to 2006 by researchers at the US Nationwide Children’s Hospital recorded 1,647 fatalities from cardiac-related injuries associated with shovelling snow. In Canada, these deaths make the news every winter.
Cardiologist Barry Franklin, an expert in the hazardous effects of snow removal, believes the number of deaths could be double that. “I believe we lose hundreds of people each year because of this activity,” says Franklin, director of preventative cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at William Beaumont Hospital, Michigan.
His team found that when healthy young men shovelled snow, their heart rate and blood pressure increased more than when they exercised on a treadmill. “Combine this with cold air, which causes arteries to constrict and decrease blood supply, you have a perfect storm for a heart attack,” he says.
Snow shovelling is particularly strenuous because it uses arm work, which is more taxing than leg work. Straining to move wet and heavy snow is particularly likely to cause a surge in heart rate and blood pressure, Franklin says.
Many people hold their breath during the hard work, which also puts a strain on the body. In addition, the prime time for snow clearance is between 6am and 10am which is when circadian fluctuations make us more vulnerable to heart attacks.
Reporting by Jo Jolly
Shoveling Snow And Heart Attack
According to past estimates, about 100 people mostly men die during or just after shoveling snow each year in the US. Many more are admitted to the hospital with chest pain or other heart problems. This latest research further explored the details of this connection. Researchers correlated admissions to the hospital and deaths due to heart attack the day after it snowed in Canada during the years 1981 to 2014. This included more than 128,000 hospital admissions and more than 68,000 deaths due to heart attack. Heres what they found:
- The deeper the snow, the more men were admitted for heart attacks. For example, for snowfalls of more than eight inches, there was a 16% increase in hospital admissions compared to days with no snow.
- The deeper the snow, the more men died of heart attacks. A 34% increase was observed the day after an eight-inch snowfall, and higher rates were noted when even more snow fell.
- Similar observations were made for duration of snowfall. The longer it snowed, the higher the rates of heart attack and related deaths among men.
- A link between snowfall and heart attack was not observed among women.
The findings of this study were not limited to people who already knew they had heart disease or who had risk factors for it. The link between snowfall and heart attack was observed even among people with no cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking or high blood pressure.
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Why Does Shoveling Snow Increase Risk Of Heart Attack
Jack Goodman is Professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education and Adjunct Scientist in the Division of Cardiology at Mt. Sinai Hospital, University of Toronto.
If exercise is good for you, why do we worry that shoveling snow will raise the risk of a heart attack?
Here Is How To Shovel Snow Safely
While continuing to address the risk of hearts while shoveling snow, Dr. Laffin explains how people are able to shovel safely without any health risks. He states that it is important for everyone to weigh the risks and benefits of shoveling.
Dr. Laffins first piece of advice is for everyone to not push themselves too hard in order to shovel the snow. Take your time shoveling. If you feel your body beginning to get tired, go inside. Rest for a little bit.
The Cleveland Clinic cardiologist goes on to advise that everyone should try to make shoveling snow management by not tackling the entire driveway all at once. It is better to divide up the work and take frequent breaks.
It is also important that everyone treats shoveling like they would for any other type of sport or exercise. This means staying warm and hydrating as much as possible. Everyone should also pay careful attention to how they are feeling both before and after shoveling.
In regards to when it is best to skip shoveling snow altogether, Dr. Laffin adds that people over the age of 55 or people with more than one medical condition should have someone else shovel instead.
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Raises Heart Rate And Blood Pressure Quickly
Shoveling snow is a very physically-demanding activity in which most people do not even stretch and warm up their muscles and body before getting started.
We stretch before a run or play a sport but not when it comes to shoveling.
Thats a big problem, considering how snow shoveling is challenging enough to raise your heart rate and blood pressure very quickly.
That sudden rise in heart rate and blood pressure is dangerous, as it could cause your heart to go into overdrive and trigger a heart attack.
Winter Storm Safety: Snow Shoveling Precautions
Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, Illinois recommends taking these safety measures:
- Do a little bit at a time, with ample breaks
- Dress appropriately. Ensure your hands are covered, wear layers and keep your feet dry and warm
- Listen to your body. If you feel tired or sluggish, its time for a hot cocoa break
- If you, a loved one or neighbor begins to show signs of a heart attack, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately
Harvard additionally recommends warming up your muscles before shoveling or snow blowing and staying hydrated.
People also should head indoors at the first sign of chest pain, lightheadedness, shortness of breath or a racing heart.
Any sudden onset of pain that radiates through your arm or neck accompanied with difficulty breathing or chest pain is a classic sign of a potentially fatal cardiac event, Silver Cross Emergency Room Physician Dr. Aaron Tabor said in a news release.
Other signs of a heart attack can include pain or discomfort in the arms, shoulders, jaw, neck or back, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women are more likely to experience symptoms such as indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, and extreme fatigue, according to the CDC.
So What Is It About Snow Shoveling
Very few studies have examined the physiology of snow shoveling because it is technically difficult to do so. We do know that the cardiovascular demands of snow shoveling are very high. In fact it rivals the demands during maximal exercise testing, such as a cardiac stress test on a treadmill or bicycle, which often exceed 80-90% of your maximal exercise tolerance.
There are two aspects of snow shoveling that make it unusual for the heart compared to, for example, walking or jogging.
First and obviously, it is typically performed in cold weather. Cold air inhalation may cause a reflex constriction of blood vessels, including the coronary arteries. Cold air may also increase the bloods propensity for clotting. If blood clots form and there is a tear in the inside of the artery, a blood clot could form a blockage.
The second issue is the nature of the exercise and snow shoveling is unique. It is typically done without a warm up, and includes considerable arm work that increases blood pressure drastically. As blood pressure rises, so too does the work of the heart. Meanwhile, your leg muscles are typically performing isometric work . This type of muscle activity, especially in the upper body , raises blood pressure more than, say, walking or jogging.
Be Wary Of Winter Heart Attacks
Because holiday heart incidents are real, pay attention to seasonal challenges
And several years ago, my brother’s death from sudden cardiac arrest at 55 on a cold January morning gave me another reason to dread the month.
I didn’t know then, but I’ve recently learned that heart attacks increase during winter for various reasons, including cold weather, holiday stress, lack of exercise, virus exposure, and eating and drinking habits.
My brother died from sudden cardiac arrest while outside on a cold morning.
A 2021 study published in the journal Medicine found that overall, in the U.S., cardiac arrests peak during the early winter months of December and January.
According to the American Heart Association’s 2022 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics, approximately 850,000 Americans have heart attacks yearly, and about 350,000 die from sudden cardiac arrest.
My brother died from sudden cardiac arrest while outside on a cold morning. He had never been diagnosed with heart disease, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t at risk.
One study concluded that cold weather is a factor in cardiac events for patients without a previous diagnosis of heart disease, perhaps because they aren’t adequately medicated for a cardiac condition.
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Can You Have A Heart Attack After Shoveling Snow
Shoveling or using a snow blower can cause a sudden increase in blood pressure and heart rate which cause clots to form and dislodge. The following symptoms are signs of a heart attack and you should stop shoveling immediately and call 911 if you think you are having a heart attack: Squeezing chest pain.
Who Is Prone To Heart Attacks While Shoveling Snow
Anyone with any degree of CAD is at higher risk for an acute cardiac event while shoveling snow. This risk goes up substantially in people who are generally sedentary and out of shape.
We should note explicitly that most people who have CAD dont know it. People who know they have CAD, in general, have already had symptoms of one kind or another , which has led to a diagnostic evaluation. In general, these people already know that shoveling snow places them at risk, and they are reasonably likely to avoid doing so.
The majority of people who have heart attacks while shoveling snow dont know that they have CAD. What they do know is that they have risk factors for CAD, such as diabetes, hypertension, smoking, elevated cholesterol, being overweight, sedentary, or being over the age of 45 in men. Cardiologists have come to believe that the large majority of all people over 55 or so, who also have a couple of these other risk factors, do indeed have at least a little CAD.
If you know you have CAD, or you have one or more of the risk factors , you should be extremely careful about shoveling snow. At the very least, snow shoveling constitutes an episode of significant stress for your cardiovascular system. The deeper and/or heavier the snow and the larger the area you have to shovel, the higher your risk.
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How To Reduce Risk Of Heart Attack While Shovelling
Shoveling is sudden, intense exercise. If you think you’re healthy enough to shovel snow, follow these tips to reduce risk of heart attack.
- If this is your first real exercise in months, go very slow and take lots of breaks.
- Avoid shoveling right after you wake up, as a high percentage of heart attacks occur early in the morning.
- Don’t shovel right after a heavy meal.
- Warm up gradually for at least 5-10 minutes.
- Keep breathing evenly don’t hold your breath as you lift snow.
- Use a small shovel, or scoop smaller amounts of snow.
- When you’re done, walk it off to cool down.
Reasons Shoveling Snow Causes Heart Attacks
- Time to read: 4 min.
When the season starts to change, and temperatures continue to drop, most people get their snow shovels from their garages and keep them ready.
Like you, they know that its only a matter of time until the snow falls from the sky and accumulates on their driveways and sidewalks.
For homeowners almost everywhere, shoveling snow is just a normal part of life.
Unfortunately, many do not know that shoveling snow can also cause a heart attack.
Even though shoveling snow off your driveway seems so harmless, the truth is that its more physically strenuous than running at a high intensity!
In this article, were going to explore the reasons why shoveling snow can cause heart attacks.
Then, well look at a few ways that you can make snow shoveling much easier on yourself.
After all, someone still needs to clear all that snow!
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When Is It Best To Skip Shoveling Altogether
If you have more than one medical condition or are over the age of 55, Dr. Laffin says its best to get someone else to shovel for you. Its simply not worth the risk.
Particularly people that have multiple medical conditions such as coronary artery disease or hypertension, or maybe they have overweight or obesity and dont get a lot of physical activity its not worth it to risk your heart, he says.
I think hiring the kid down the street to do it is a great idea, Dr. Laffin says.
Why Do Heart Attack Rates Spike During Times Of Heavy Snow
Cold weather places more demands on the heart, which has to work harder to maintain body heat. People who arent in shape and dont warm up place an increased demand on their hearts when they shovel snow. Pushing or lifting snow constricts blood vessels and raises pressure.
How many people have a heart attack shoveling snow?
As winter arrives, its worth noting that each year about 11,500 people in the United States are treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to snow shoveling. On average, 100 of those injuries are fatal, generally heart attacks.
Can shoveling snow make you sick?
Oftentimes, the cold and overexertion can lead to heart attack signs, including squeezing pain in the chest, shortness of breath, pain starting in the left shoulder and down the arm, or a cold sweat, according to HMS. Jaw pain, lower back pain, extreme fatigue, nausea and anxiety also can be symptoms.
Why is shoveling snow so hard?
Snow shovelling is particularly strenuous because it uses arm work, which is more taxing than leg work. Straining to move wet and heavy snow is particularly likely to cause a surge in heart rate and blood pressure, Franklin says. Many people hold their breath during the hard work, which also puts a strain on the body.
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Holiday Heart Is Real
Eating rich and sugary foods and drinking more alcohol can be culprits over the holidays. Excess alcohol consumption at this time of year, known as Holiday Heart Syndrome, is a cause of adverse cardiac events.
“Acute alcohol intake can lead to cardiac rhythm abnormalities, and the most common is atrial fibrillation, which can lead to stroke. However, many people are susceptible to alcohol, so you don’t necessarily have to be a heavy drinker to be affected,” Lepor says.
How Can I Shovel Safely
- Wear warm but not tight clothing
- Split up large areas and shovel them in small sections
- Take breaks at a warm place and watch for developing symptoms
- Keep track of how you feel before and after shoveling, and if you have symptoms call 911 immediately
COPC wants you and your loved ones to stay safe and healthy. Check out our Health Library for more stories on health topics like this!
ReferencesHeart Attack Risks While Shoveling Show. Cleveland Clinic, 1 Dec. 2021, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/snow-shoveling-a-real-risk-for-heart-attack/.Staff, Harvard Health Publishing. Protect Your Heart When Shoveling Snow. Harvard Health, 28 Feb. 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/protect-your-heart-when-shoveling-snow-201101151153.Blake, Ally. How Shoveling Snow Can Increase the Risk of Heart Attacks. Https://Www.wkyt.com, https://www.wkyt.com/2022/01/29/how-shoveling-snow-can-increase-risks-heart-attacks/.
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The Possibility Of A Heart Attack From Shoveling Snow
Anyone working in an emergency department in a northern climate knows that on a very snowy day they will not be seeing any downtime. They will be running non-stop during their entire shifts. Its pretty likely they’ll be seeing at least a few people injured in snow-related car crashes, or in sledding or skiing accidents.
But its virtually certain they’ll be confronted with medical problems caused by shoveling snow. And to deal with these shoveling-related emergencies they will have at least two kinds of specialists on speed dial. The first, of course, is the orthopedic surgeon, who will find him/herself booked for several days treating back injuries, hip injuries, twisted ankles, torn rotator cuffs, and ruptured biceps.
The second specialist on speed dial is the cardiologist.
In fact, any cardiology department worth its salt will have already fully staffed and fired up the catheterization laboratory.
Because, as it turns out, shoveling snow is an extremely efficient way to trigger a heart attack in people who have coronary artery disease .