Think twice before picking up that snow shovel.
Doctors say working in cold weather can set you up for disaster.
Studies show that heart attacks occur more frequently in the winter than the summer and the fatality rate is higher, says Dr. William Towne, an interventional cardiologist with Cadence Physician Group Cardiology at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, though both seasons increase the risk of a heart attack because extreme weather can lead to overexertion.
Towne compares snow shoveling to weightlifting and explains that muscles and blood vessels constrict when someone shovels in the cold. As a result of the constriction, blood pressure rises and the heart is forced to work harder.
“If people have a heart condition, I don’t think they should be shoveling snow at all because of the increased risk,” he says.
Snow shoveling should be done at a slow pace for five to seven minutes at a time, with rest periods of two to three minutes, Towne says, noting one should drink a lot of water to stay hydrated.
Proper body position and movement play a big role in preventing injury. Towne recommends keeping the shovel close to the body, bending from the knees rather than the back, pushing snow instead of lifting it, tightening stomach muscles when lifting is necessary and walking to dump snow instead of throwing it.
He also suggests using a light-weight snow shovel with a curved handle and spraying the blade with a silicone-based lubricant so the snow doesn’t stick to it.
Allow plenty of time for the job, doctors say, and don’t shovel after eating to prevent overexertion. They also recommend avoiding medications (including cold medicine), caffeine, alcohol and smoking because they can increase blood pressure.
“Everybody feels like they have to get that little thing done in a short space of time,” says Dr. Vincent Bufalino, a national spokesman for the American Heart Association and senior director of cardiology for Advocate Health Care in the Chicago area. “And that time pressure is something that you should not have.”
He tells his patients to avoid heavy snow shoveling and yard work in extreme weather and to “support the kid in the neighborhood” to get the job done.
Using a snowblower, climbing a hill and doing a project in the garage are other activities that can lead to a heart attack during cold weather, Bufalino says.
“Just because you have a snowblower doesn’t mean you’re exempt,” he says. “Every year, we have a number of folks who have a heart attack using their snowblower.”
Know the symptoms
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women. The American Heart Association reports that nearly 73 percent of men and 72 percent of women in the age group of 60 to 79 have cardiovascular disease.
During a heart attack, plaque ruptures and a blood clot forms around the plaque. A heart attack occurs because the clot clogs an artery and prevents blood flow to the heart muscle.
Symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain that may radiate to the left arm, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and vomiting, Towne says.
Sometimes symptoms are atypical or subtle.
“The heart is an organ that doesn’t have pain receptors,” Towne says. “It actually refers pain to other areas. So, sometimes it can present like somebody pulled a muscle.”
He says some of his patients didn’t realize they were having a heart attack because it felt like a terrible earache or toothache.
Diabetics tend to have atypical symptoms, such as flu-like feelings, Towne says, and women may experience breathlessness after doing an activity, right shoulder pain or other less obvious signs.
While both men and women can experience classic symptoms, women are more likely to exhibit less common signs, such as heartburn, loss of appetite, tiredness, coughing and heart flutters, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Because most people believe it will never happen to them, they need to know what factors put them at risk, Bufalino says.
“The No. 1 predictor of an early heart attack is smoking,” he says. “So, if there’s a single thing that people need to change, it’s [to] quit smoking.”
Other risk factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, a family history of heart disease, overweightness and a sedentary lifestyle.
Cardiologists recommend an annual exam to check blood pressure and screen for other potential problems. Glucose and cholesterol testing will help assess a patient’s risk of developing heart disease.
In addition, patients with a couple of risk factors should have a heart scan to look for calcium deposits in the arteries, an electrocardiogram, which records the heart’s electrical activity, and a stress test to make sure exercising is safe, Bufalino says.
How to act/prevention
The American Heart Association recommends a daily low dose of aspirin, with physician approval, for heart attack survivors and patients with a high risk of a heart attack. Aspirin acts as a blood thinner and helps prevent blood clots from forming.
Heart attack victims have a better chance of survival if they call 911 instead of relying on someone else to drive them to the emergency room, Towne says.
After making the call, he suggests chewing four baby aspirin or one regular aspirin — preferably noncoated — to slow down blood clotting.
“Chew [the aspirin] so it gets in the blood stream as soon as possible,” Towne says. kc