Winter means warm fires, snow days … and, unfortunately, back injuries.

“We see a high incidence of herniated discs as soon as the snow comes,” says Dr. Sandro LaRocca of New Jersey Neck & Back Institute. And while any activity can cause a herniation, snow shoveling tends to be the leading culprit in winter.

What is a Herniation? Your spine has soft discs that act as cushions between the bones. When one of those discs ruptures, from age, wear-and-tear, twisting, or other injuries, the soft inner material of the disc squeezes out through the outer shell, kind of like toothpaste through a tube. This causes compression and inflammation of the spinal nerves.

Symptoms of Herniation. Typically, you feel a gripping, pulling sensation in the back and, perhaps the buttocks, followed by leg pain. Back pain from reaching, lifting, and twisting heavy loads of snow may be a sign that a disc is about to rupture. And often, once the disc does rupture, back pain is relieved, only to be replaced by leg pain, thanks to pressure on the nerves that form the sciatic nerve. The leg pain may be associated with numbness and tingling, or sometimes even weakness.

Weakness requires immediate evaluation, but numbness, particularly in the buttocks or groin and/or changes in bowel or bladder function, can also indicate a more serious injury. This is the result of a very large disc herniation, causing severe compression of the spinal nerves or the “cauda equina,” Dr. LaRocca says. Such cases may require urgent surgery.

Preventing Herniation. The best way to avoid shoveling-related injuries is to get a snow blower, Dr. LaRocca says. But if you must shovel, invest in an ergonomically curved shovel with a plastic blade. This will help keep the load light. Also, learn and practice proper shoveling and lifting techniques if you must pick up and move snow. Never over-extend or reach, keep your lower hand as close to the shovel blade as possible, and bend and lift with your legs, not your back. Never, ever twist at the waist and throw the snow. Instead, turn your whole body, walk the snow to wherever it needs to go, and drop it.

Also, invest in good non-slip footwear and some de-icing salt. Plenty of winter herniations happen when someone slips on ice or melting snow.

Treatment. The good news about herniated discs is that these injuries are almost always temporary and easily fixed. Most herniations heal with time, anti-inflammatory medication, some light stretching and exercise, and sometimes spinal injections. But about 10 percent of cases do not improve within the typical six to eight weeks. These often require outpatient, minimally invasive surgery to relieve the pressure and pain.

If you’re experiencing pain from a herniated disc, give us a call and let Dr. LaRocca get you back on your feet. After all, that snow isn’t going to shovel itself.

New Jersey Neck & Back Institute, 3131 Princeton Pike #106, Lawrenceville. 609-896-0020.

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