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Shovelling can increase your risk of a heart attack. What to know as parts of Canada see record snowfall

Nova Scotia has recorded a historic snowfall and many are spending their days shovelling. Here's how to stay safe.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

A car is buried by snow after a winter storm in Sydney, N.S. on Monday, Feb.5, 2024. A local state of emergency remained in effect in parts of Cape Breton on Monday, as Nova Scotia dug out from one of the heaviest snowfalls in 20 years.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shane Wilkie
A car is buried by snow after a winter storm in Sydney, N.S. Here's how to stay safe when shovelling this winter. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shane Wilkie)

After Nova Scotia saw a record amount of snowfall over the weekend — with more than 100 cm of snow in some parts — many are still digging their way out of their homes.

One Cape Bretoner told Global News on Monday she couldn't physically open her front door. Pam Leader had asked someone to shovel her pathway the night prior, and by the morning, it was covered again.

"The snow is so high, it's going to need a different (machine), a plow isn't going to do it. So unless I have someone that’s going to shovel a little tunnel... then that's probably the only way at this point," Leader said to Global.

The snowfall was so severe that Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston asked neighbouring provinces and the federal government for help with resources and gear.

A truck is abandoned on a snow-covered street after a winter storm in Sydney, N.S. on Monday, Feb.5, 2024. A local state of emergency remained in effect in parts of Cape Breton on Monday, as Nova Scotia dug out from one of the heaviest snowfalls in 20 years.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shane Wilkie
A truck is abandoned on a snow-covered street after a winter storm in Sydney, N.S. on Monday, Feb.5, 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shane Wilkie)
Residents walking down Charlotte St. after winter storm in Sydney, N.S. on Monday, Feb.5, 2024. A local state of emergency remained in effect in parts of Cape Breton on Monday, as Nova Scotia dug out from one of the heaviest snowfalls in 20 years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shane Wilkie
A local state of emergency remained in effect in parts of Cape Breton on Monday, as Nova Scotia dug out from one of the heaviest snowfalls in 20 years. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shane Wilkie)

It was the heaviest snowfall the province has seen in 20 years.

Beyond the risks and inconveniences of being snowed in, it can also be dangerous for some people to try and dig their way out. Shovelling snow poses an increased risk of injury, and even heart attacks.

In January, two Canadians died after experiencing cardiac arrest while shovelling snow in their driveways. But, there are ways to lower your risks and avoid injury.

What should you be looking out for? Here's what you need to know about staying safe.


Snowfall linked to spike in injuries— from slip and falls to more serious emergencies

Every year, thousands of Canadians are hospitalized for injuries sustained while shovelling. Researchers have also found that the physical strain of removing snow can trigger serious and fatal health incidents like heart attacks, in addition to more common ailments like back strains and "slip and fall" injuries.

Additionally, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows a link between heavy snowstorms and heart attacks that either result in death or hospitalization. Between 1981 and 2014, researchers in Quebec found that 65,000 people died from heart attacks and 128,000 were hospitalized during or after heavy snowfalls.

Experts advise people to follow certain steps when it comes to shovelling snow and to seek help when you need it.


Can shovelling snow cause a heart attack?

Shovelling snow has been linked to a spike in slip and falls — and heart attacks. (Image via Getty Images)
Shovelling snow has been linked to a spike in slip and falls — and heart attacks. (Image via Getty Images)

Although the act of shovelling snow isn't necessarily bad for your health, a combination of factors can increase your risk of heart attack.

"With snow shovelling you go from nothing to everything in a matter of seconds and that challenges your cardiovascular system much more than if you do aerobic exercise for example walking or going to the gym," says Dr. Adrian Baranchuk, a cardiologist with the Canadian Cardiovascular Society.

The overexertion of shovelling, especially if you're not physically fit and used to exercise, combined with cold temperatures which increase your blood pressure can put a strain on your heart.


Who's at risk of heart attack while shovelling snow?

People with a history of heart disease and those who are over the age of 55 are at an increased risk of heart attacks while shovelling snow.

"In our research we found if you have family history of early cardiovascular disease your risk of presenting a snow shovelling heart attack event increases four times," Baranchuk explained in an interview with Yahoo Canada last year.

Research also shows that men suffer more heart attacks than women during or after shovelling.

To prevent health-related costs, refrain from shovelling snow, ask for help, or hire a younger neighbour to help with snow removal.


What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Man over 60 experiencing chest pain. (Image via Getty Images)
The first two hours after a heart attack are critical. (Image via Getty Images)

The next time you pick up a shovel, make sure to play it safe and watch out for any signs that your heart may be in distress. People experiencing a heart attack may experience:

  • Chest pain

  • Pressure in the chest that comes and goes

  • Tight feeling in the chest

  • Shortness of breath

  • Pain radiating towards your neck and arm

Although the symptoms listed above are the most common, there are other, lesser known symptoms of heart attack you should never ignore — especially if you're a woman. According to the Mayo Clinic, women are more likely than men to experience heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain.

Other symptoms of heart attack can include:

  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy

  • Stomach pain

  • Cold sweats

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Numb or pinching feeling in the arm

  • Neck, jaw or upper back pain

  • Heartburn or indigestion

If you experience any of these symptoms, stop what you're doing and call 911 to seek medical attention immediately.


First two hours after heart attack are critical

Electrocardiogram (ECG) during a myocardial infarction (heart attack). Computer illustration showing ST-elevation which is measured at the junctional or J-point.
Less common heart attack symptoms include nausea, stomach pain or indigestion. (Image via Getty Images)

According to Baranchuk, the first two hours after a heart attack are critical. However, many people delay getting help, which greatly affects the level of treatment doctors can provide.

"The impact in the short and long term, the consequences of that are dramatically associated with the time elapsed since the initiation of the symptoms to our ability to open the artery," he explains. "If the patient doesn’t call early enough then all those minutes account for our inability to reinstitute the flow in the vessel and to keep the patient normalized."


Tips for how and when to shovel the snow safely

If you're going to shovel snow, don't do it all at once. Shovel one section of the driveway, take a break and go inside to warm up. Hydrate before going back outside.

Another tip? Don't hold your breath. The American Heart Association notes that since many people hold their breath while lifting and discarding snow, the heart experiences greater changes in heart rate and blood pressure.

It’s also recommended to stretch before getting started and to avoid shovelling on a full stomach. If possible, Baranchuk recommends shovelling snow in the afternoon or evening rather than in the early morning.

"That is a well-known time of the day where there is significant peak of heart attacks," he says.

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