When the snow starts piling up, many who pick up their shovels and head for their driveways and walkways are putting themselves at risk for an adverse cardiac event. These include heart attacks, where a blockage cuts off the heart’s blood supply leading to tissue damage, and cardiac arrest, when the heart beats irregularly and then stops. But for those at risk, there are ways to guard your heart when shoveling show.
Who’s at risk?
Men are more at risk than women, but certain people with health problems have higher risk than others for a cardiac event. These include anyone who:
- is in poor physical condition
- has a history of heart disease, including heart attacks, heart failure and stroke
- has hypertension or diabetes
The greatest risk is with people who are still recovering from a heart attack, or who are being treated for heart failure. People in these groups should avoid snow shoveling entirely. But most of us, as we get older, have plaque in our arteries so we might not realize we are at risk. We may think we are healthy, but plaque is narrowing our arteries. When under high physical stress, the plaque can rupture and cause a heart attack even if it was not significantly blocking the artery. While there are plenty of us who are not in a high risk group, we are still at risk to have plaque become unstable, possibly triggering a heart attack while shoveling snow.
Get ready for snow shoveling …
- Dress warmly and in layers, especially if it’s below 25 degrees.
- Avoid overdressing. This can lead to overheating, another way to stress the heart during exertion.
- Shield your face and mouth with a scarf or mask. This kind of protection is essential because cold air striking the face triggers a reflex action: the cold causes a reflex constriction of the coronary arteries and an increase in blood pressure.
- Do a simple warm up like walking briskly or only shoveling small scoops of snow at first.
If the snow is light, consider putting the shovel away and using a broom. If the snow is heavy, the following steps can lighten the work – and the burden on your heart:
- Continue shoveling only small scoops of snow so you are lifting less weight per scoop.
- Take frequent breaks to lower your heart rate.
- Readjust your clothing if you feel too hot or too cold.
- If you are feeling flushed and over-exerted, stop shoveling, cool down briefly by marching in place and then go inside.
- Each of the following are indications to stop immediately: shortness of breath, feeling weak or lightheaded, heart palpitations or chest or arm discomfort. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish arm and chest pain from muscle strain and heart pain. Stop with any type of pain including arms, chest, neck and back.
Take the next step:
- Read these tips for heart-healthy cold weather workouts.
- Share these cold weather tips for older adults.
Melvyn Rubenfire, MD, FACC, FAHA, is a professor of internal medicine and director of Preventive Cardiology at the University of Michigan. He is a pioneer in coronary disease prevention and is responsible for developing the pulmonary hypertension, lipid management and the Metabolic Fitness Programs at the U-M.
The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.