The number of patients OSF St. Joseph Medical Center treated for heart attacks in January, February, and March of this year increased by 20 percent when compared to any other months in the year. Research shows intensive snow shoveling may increase health risks such as a heart attack. Cold weather is another contributor, because it can boost blood pressure, interrupt blood flow to part of the heart, and make blood more likely to form clots.
“When the temperature outside drops, our blood vessels narrow to prevent our bodies from losing heat. This is a natural response that can also put people with heart conditions and those involved in strenuous exercise at greater risk of having a heart attack," says Dr. Yogesh Agarwal, OSF Cardiologist at HeartCare Midwest.
Research has also identified three risk factors that put individuals at a high risk when shoveling snow: gender (males have a higher risk), family history of premature coronary disease, and smoking. Also, those who have had a prior heart attack, known heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and those who lead sedentary lifestyles, are at a higher risk for suffering a heart-related incident while shoveling snow. If individuals fall into one or more of these risk factors, they should check with their primary care physician before shoveling snow.
Whether or not an individual has one or more of these risk factors, everyone should take the following precautions before, during, or after shoveling snow:
- Warm up your muscles before starting.
- Dress in layers to avoid hypothermia (low body temperature) or overheating.
- Cover your head and neck – 50 percent of your body heat is lost through your head and neck.
- Cover your mouth – breathing cold air can cause angina or trigger breathing problems.
- Shovel many light loads instead of fewer heavy ones.
- Begin slowly and take frequent, 15-minute breaks.
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Don’t feel you need to clear every speck of snow from your property.
- Don’t drink alcoholic beverages before or immediately after shoveling. Alcohol may increase a person’s sensation of warmth and may cause them to underestimate the extra strain their body is under in the cold.
- Avoid shoveling immediately after you awaken, as most heart attacks occur early in the morning when blood is more prone to clotting. Wait for at least 30 minutes after awakening.
- Do not eat heavy meals before shoveling: blood gets diverted from the heart to the stomach.
- Do not drink coffee or smoke for at least one hour before or one hour after shoveling or during breaks. These are stimulants and elevate your blood pressure and heart rate.
- If you are out of shape or worried about your heart, hire a teenage neighbor. He or she could use the money, and probably the exercise.
- Watch for warning signs of a heart attack: lightheadedness, dizziness, being short of breath or if you have tightness or burning in chest, neck, arms or back. If you think you are having a heart attack call 911.