Strenuous snow shoveling can be bad for your heart – when to call 911

Every time there’s a significant snowstorm around the country, cardiologists get ready for a deluge of patients afterward, according to a Northern Virginia doctor who has tips to prevent overexertion.

“We know that shoveling snow is like a high-intensity aerobic activity, and the cold adds two problems,”  said Dr. Amey Kulkarni, a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente in Tysons, Virginia.

First, cold temperatures can prevent people from noticing how hard they’re working. Secondly, some data shows that bodies work much harder to accomplish a task when the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“And so you can imagine an activity that you do, let’s say at 70 degrees Fahrenheit if you were to do the same activity, when it’s close to freezing, like when it’s snowing, it’s going to require a lot more work from your body to do that same job,” he said. “And so that’s why we see your heart get under more strain during those times.”

To prevent overdoing it, Kulkarni wants people to set their alarm for 15 minutes to take frequent breaks, drink lots of water and pay attention to their bodies.

Dr. Amey Kulkarni is a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente in Tysons Corner.

Heart attack warning signs that might indicate a need for medical help include:

  • Chest pain that doesn’t improve when you rest for a few minutes
  • Severe shortness of breath or fatigue
  • Extreme fatigue like having run a marathon that persists after an hour

“Extreme fatigue that just doesn’t get better. That’s the third one when you want to check in with your doctor or call 911 for,” Kulkarni said.

Kulkarni emphasizes that people who suspect a problem should not drive to the hospital but instead call 911.

“The instinct may be to hop in the car and drive to the doctor’s office or to the urgent care. This is a circumstance, especially when the snow is still on the ground, where you don’t want to add to the stress of whatever is going on. So calling 911 is the right thing to do,” he said. “The last thing you need is to be having a heart attack and then in traffic on 495 trying to get to a place that can take care of you.”

Dr. Kulkarni said that people should take it easy on a final note.

“There’s no harm in taking a long time to shovel the driveway. But there is potential harm in overexertion,” Kulkarni said. “So it may be that you shovel half your driveway out one day and the other half on the next day just to make sure that you’re not overdoing it; because there is a real risk of inducing a heart attack from overexertion from shoveling your driveway.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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