We shovelers should be wary of back-breaking snow work

Michael Olesker

YESTERDAY morning, having spent the previous two days shoveling the alley in which my car was parked and awakening a chorus of muscles previously asleep since the first Reagan administration, I did what so many brave and foolhardy people of my generation were doing: I telephoned my chiropractor and asked for diplomatic asylum from the snow.

"Something is wrong," I said.

"Wrong?" asked Warren Silver. He had just arrived at his Woodlawn office.

"I seem to have muscles aching that I never even knew I had," I said.

"Right," said Silver, "I'm hearing this from quite a few people."

In his experience, this happens whenever it snows. Something primal (and stupid) is roused in the beast, particularly the male of the species. It is something beyond the need to get to work, beyond the claustrophobia called cabin fever, beyond the hallowed Baltimore ritual that calls for us to stock up on the life essentials of beer and toilet paper at the first trace of a snowflake.

We want to show ourselves that we still have the right stuff, that we're still tough enough to stand up to nature. We want to defy every potential pulled muscle, popped tendon and herniated disc. Shovel, we must.

"Yeah, we get a lot of that," said Silver. "People who haven't exercised in years, and now they're out there in two feet of snow. The worst that can happen is a heart attack or a stroke. But that's not chiropratic. What we deal with, we're talking about herniated discs and all kinds of lesser problems. I wind up with new patients calling for appointments every time it snows."

What I wanted to know, beyond the availability of an immediate appointment for one of his favorite longtime patients, is what advice he offers to those now digging themselves out of snow and, perhaps, into traction. Chiropractors, after all, are specialists in muscle and bone and tissue. I think they probably took a course in college, Snow Shoveling 101.

"What do you tell people about shoveling snow?" I asked.

"They should do what I do," he said, speaking with the professional insight that comes from years of healing the aching human body.

"Which is?"

"Buy a snowblower," he said. "I chipped in with three of my neighbors and bought one. It cost us about $650, and we take turns with it. Worth every cent. I had no trouble digging my car out of the driveway."

"I meant, like, for those of us rugged people facing the elements with nothing but our shovels and our hearty spirit and our formerly strong backs," I said.

"For that," he said, "I tell my patients not to start right away. This is exercise. You should warm up before you start, just like any vigorous exercising. Stretch, warm up the muscles. And when you start to shovel, do not pick and twist and throw.

"In other words, you want to push as much as possible. Pick and push, a little bit at a time. You see people throwing the snow off to the side, or throwing behind them, and the shovels are packed with snow. That's asking for trouble. It involves twisting, and that causes lower back strain. Also, use your knees as much as possible, to take some of the strain off the back."

The human body being what it is, we are increasingly vulnerable as we age.

"Someone who's in their 20s may just have muscle strain," Silver said. "Somebody in their 40s, with degenerative changes, with a history of lower back problems, you could blow out a disc. Somebody your age ..."

(My age being: I am old enough to remember Galen Fromme announcing the school closings on the radio every winter.)

"... you could injure a disc. So it's important, if you're going to do it, to do it very carefully. That's what I tell everybody. It's what I told Kathy."

Kathy is Silver's assistant, Kathy Ebberts. When he gets off the phone, she will be his first adjustment of the day, having thrown out her back digging her car out of an Owings Mills drift.

"What's the choice?" she said yesterday. "You dig yourself out, or you never get out. In my neighborhood, everybody and his brother was out there."

Silver moved to Baltimore from Brooklyn, N.Y. He remembers years ago, standing in the snow and waiting for the school bus to pick him up. The snow seemed enormous. It was probably a couple of inches high.

Yesterday morning, along Druid Hill Avenue just above North Avenue, there came one of the beautiful things connected to any snowfall. From behind one of the cars scattered along the street came a snowball, flung by a smiling teen-age boy at a girl across the street. It missed. The girl packed a snowball of her own and flung it back, smiling just as happily. Her throw missed, too.

But it looked like fun. That's what snow is, when you're young. When you're not, it's telephone calls to your chiropractor, who offers refuge from the snow, and from aching muscles -- if you can just dig your car out and get over to his office.
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