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Take it easy: Shoveling snow can lead to death

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Posted at 2:52 PM, Feb 18, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-04 16:53:21-05

Shoveling snow isn’t just a pain in the back — it’s a major cause of heart attacks and deaths in the winter.

More than 1,600 people died from a cardiac incident while shoveling snow from 1990 to 2006, according to a study by the National Center for Injury Research and Policy.

“The heart rate increases, your blood pressure increases and there’s more demand on the heart muscle. All of those things together can cause the setup for heart stress,” said Nisha Parikh, a cardiologist and assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco.

Bitter cold, the stress of digging out and the early morning hours all put extra strain on the heart. That can cause a plaque in the arteries feeding the heart to rupture.

What follows is a cascade of inflammation, clotting and possibly the death of heart muscle — a heart attack.

“It wouldn’t happen to a healthy person,” Parikh said. “The heart attack would usually occur if they were predisposed. They would have to have some plaque in their artery to begin with.”

People over 55 are more than four times as likely to have a cardiac event while shoveling. Men were affected twice as often as women.

The American Heart Association makes the following recommendations to safely shovel snow:

  • Take frequent breaks
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal before or soon after shoveling
  • Use a small shovel, or use a snow thrower
  • Learn the heart attack warning signs
  • Don’t drink alcohol before or immediately after shoveling
  • Dress warm
  • Talk to your doctor

The most common signs of a heart attack are:

  • Chest discomfort (pressure, squeezing, pain)
  • Discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness

Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and pain in the back or jaw.

About 720,000 Americans experience a heart attack each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Be prepared for snow by downloading the NOAA Snow Forecast App by WeatherSphere.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter at @GavinStern.