Staying safe while shoveling wet, heavy snow

Person shovels snow
Dennis Simpson shovels snow off the sidewalk outside of his law office in downtown Marshall on Sunday as heavy snow fell in the area.
Jackson Forderer | MPR News

Have you heard the term “heart attack snow?” It’s a real thing, unfortunately.

Shoveling heavy snow can put you at higher risk of heart attack or cardiac arrest. Mayo Clinic cardiologist Dr. Vinayak Nagaraja joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer and shared how to keep yourself safe as you clean up from the storm.

Here are tips from the Mayo Clinic:

Be heart conscious

If you have a history of heart problems and are currently inactive, it’s best to speak with your health care provider before shoveling. Additionally, don’t shovel while smoking, eating or after consuming caffeine; this may place extra stress on your heart.

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Dress warm

Wear several layers of clothing. You can always remove a layer if needed.

Drink plenty of water

Remaining hydrated during cold-weather months is just as important as during warm-weather months.

Warm up your arms and legs

Stretch your arms and legs before beginning to shovel. You are less likely to injure muscles when they are warm.

Take it slow

Pace yourself and take breaks if you need to. Safety is more important than speed.

Protect your back

Bend at the knees, not the back. Lift with your legs bent, stand with your feet hip-width apart for balance and keep the shovel close to your body.

Also, don’t pick up too much snow at once; use a small shovel or fill up a large shovel no more than half way.

Shovel while snow is fresh

Freshly fallen snow is lighter than snow that has started melting.

Listen to your body

This is the most important snow shoveling tip. If something feels abnormal, or if you’re tired, it’s time to stop.

If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 immediately.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Now, I told our last guest about heart attack snow. You've heard the term, right? It is a real thing, unfortunately. Shoveling heavy snow can put you at a higher risk of heart attack or cardiac arrest. Mayo Clinic cardiologist Vinayak Nagaraja is on the line right now to explain why and how to keep yourself safe as you clean up from the storm. Dr. Nagaraja, thank you for spending the time with us.

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: Of course. Thank you for having me on the show.

CATHY WURZER: It's a pleasure. So I'm just curious. Is it raining or snowing where you are right now?

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: It was mostly raining at the time when I last checked. I've been inside the hospital, so it's a bit hard to judge at the moment.

CATHY WURZER: So you have some rain. Any patient cancellations today because of the forecast?

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: We've been doing all the in-person visits on phone or as a video rather than the inconvenience to come over.

CATHY WURZER: Good. So I'm wondering. Now, many people actually have heard the term heart attack snow. What does that mean to you as a cardiologist?

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: I think quite commonly during the winter, people tend to be a bit more sedentary compared to the summers as expected. And from my understanding, they have not been working out or have been staying active, so they're a bit out of shape.

So when there is a big snowfall, like one of these-- this is probably one of the smaller ones that we've had here, but I'm sure we've seen worse. But during such time when they're clearing their driveway or something along those lines, they tend to push themselves. There's some hypothesis about when cold weather can precipitate some spasm of vessels on top of being out of shape.

So if you do have, let's say, coronary artery disease, which is blocked arteries, if you put that to the test in a situation where you're straining beyond what you're used to-- and on top of that, to make matters worse, if you have a very cold wind chill-- you may actually precipitate a heart attack.

And on top of that, it probably gets worse especially if you're dehydrated, and you're not on top of what's going on around you. And I've also seen people obviously having falls and things like that, which is not very nice either. But that's been my experience so far with that.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So it sounds as though folks who may be already at risk probably should not go out and shovel.

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: I think the most important aspect is to know, what is your limit? And be aware of that. And we should not be shy of asking for help. And things like if somebody is an active smoker and has not been in shape over the last three to six months, things may not be where you thought the things were when you left last.

So I think it has to be more like a personal gauge of some sort. But probably do it slowly and steadily rather than do it all in one go. Take some breaks. Obviously, take care of your body in general and so on. Drink plenty of water.

CATHY WURZER: See, I think that's what people miss, especially this time of the year, right? Because it's cold, why should I drink water? I'm not it's not like I'm sweating necessarily. I'm wondering, are there symptoms or signs that might warn people that they should kind of back off a little bit and take a break?

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: I think symptoms like they might be sweating for no reason, for example, or they might feel some indigestion-type symptoms. So those kind of symptoms should probably be taken into consideration because they're slightly more subtle compared to the television description of a heart attack.

Yeah. Some subtle symptoms like that, if you're short of breath-- you can't catch your breath quite well. Or even if a small activity feels like a mammoth task, you may want to just take it easy and just get some attention.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Final question. Have you run into this in your own practice? Have you seen people having cardiac arrest because of shoveling heavy snow?

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: I haven't seen cardiac arrest, but I have seen people-- that's been one of the ways where I have detected patients have coronary artery disease, like blocked arteries, because they do say that they have this burning pain when they shovel snow, which they didn't have last winter, so that kind of rang some alarm bells for me.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting. OK. So it sounds like take it easy, hydrate, maybe do some stretching, and go slow. And if you need help, ask for help.

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: Absolutely. And always maybe have your phone by your side or close by if you need help whether it be 911 or call a friend and so on.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Good advice. Doctor, thanks for taking the time.

VINAYAK NAGARAJA: Of course. My pleasure.

CATHY WURZER: Dr. Vinayak Nagaraja is a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

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