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Snow shoveling 'perfect storm' for heart attacks, experts warn

Snow is shoveled in this undated photo.

Snow is shoveled in this undated photo. Photo Credit: ISTOCK / Mike Cherim

Three Long Island deaths reported over the weekend were apparently caused by shoveling snow or using a snowblower — activities that can trigger preventable heart attacks, health experts warned.

All of the deaths were reported Saturday. The victims included a 94-year-old man found collapsed next to a snowblower in Smithtown, a 75-year-old Huntington Station woman who died at Huntington Hospital after she had difficulty breathing while shoveling snow at her home, and a 61-year-old man went into cardiac arrest while shoveling snow in West Hempstead at 4 p.m. Saturday, police said.

Dr. Guy L. Mintz, a cardiologist with a practice in Great Neck and an associate professor of medicine at the Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine, said in a telephone interview Sunday that shoveling snow manually or with a mechanical snowblower can create the “perfect cardiology storm.”

It’s a lot more strenuous and potentially harmful activity as some may think, Mintz warned. Though people over 55 years old are generally more susceptible to cardiac risk, it can happen at any age, he said.

Dr. Evelina Grayver, Northwell Health’s director of coronary care, said snow shoveling was essentially “serious weightlifting in frozen temperatures.” Though a host of factors, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, places certain individuals at a higher risk for a heart attack, leading a sedentary lifestyle can also be a significant hazard, Grayver said.

She said Northwell Health treated numerous patients this weekend for snow-related injuries, and that a 38-year-old man had died Sunday after shoveling. She declined to comment further, citing privacy laws.

Grayver added that people seriously underestimate the fitness requirements of shoveling, and that those with risk factors should be fully evaluated by a physician before removing snow.

Pushing heavy snow and straining the upper body increases heart rate and elevates blood pressure, potentially to dangerous levels, Mintz said.

“In the cold weather your heart rate goes up, so the heart beats faster and the blood pressure goes up with shoveling,” Mintz said. “When you’re out in the cold the blood vessels constrict and then decrease the blood supply to the heart. Less oxygen goes to the heart and the blood pressure goes up for that as well.”

Grayver said that taking frequent breaks to evaluate the body’s condition was essential. “Snow shoveling is such a goal-oriented event. This is what makes it even more dangerous,” Grayver added. “Very rarely do people stop to recognize symptoms ahead of time.”

Symptoms of a heart attack while shoveling include significant chest discomfort, shortness of breath, palpitations, dizziness, and pain or burning in the neck and arms, Grayver said.

Mintz suggested not smoking or drinking coffee before snow shoveling, stretching for at least 15 to 20 minutes before going outside, dressing in layers, wearing a hat, scarf and gloves to retain body heat and taking frequent 15-minute breaks to go inside and warm up.

  • Snow shoveling tips:
  • Wear warm, wind-resistant outer layers
  • Warm up before beginning to shovel
  • Stay hydrated and avoid dehydrating drinks with caffeine or alcohol
  • Use an ergonomic shovel and grip as close to the blade as possible
  • Bend at the hips, not from the lower back
  • Keep back straight, bend with knees and lift the shovel with your leg muscles
  • Keep loads light and take frequent breaks
  • Avoid twisting to face a new direction; instead pivot completely
  • In case of frostbite symptoms, such as waxy-feeling skin, numbness, white- or gray-colored patches of skin, go inside as soon as possible and address the affected areas with warm water, without rubbing the skin

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