Can shovelling snow cause a heart attack? An expert explains
Why the simple winter task can be fatal for Canadians, and what you can do 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.
We've only been in winter for just over a month, and already many Canadians have been hit with snow from coast to coast.
And while snowflakes and snowdrifts are great for skiing, tobogganing and snowshoeing, for some people it also means shovelling out your walkway or digging your car out of a snow pile.
From time to time, shovelling can also be an excellent form of exercise, especially during the winter when it can be hard to motivate yourself to work out. But for some of us, shovelling snow can pose serious health risks.
Before you head outdoors with your trusty shovel, experts are urging people to be mindful of the consequences that can be associated with shovelling.
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?
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.
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.
Symptoms of heart attacks you should look out for
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.
Aside from the most known common signs like chest pain, shortness of breath and pain radiating towards your neck and arm, people can also experience light headedness, stomach pain, cold sweats, nausea or vomiting when experiencing a heart attack. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop what you’re doing and call 911 to seek medical attention immediately.
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.
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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