Ask the Expert: Shoveling snow and heart attacks

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Kootenai Heart Clinics Northwest

I have often been asked by patients if shoveling snow can cause a heart attack. The short answer is yes, shoveling snow is a known trigger for heart attacks, but that doesn’t mean it will happen to you.

We all know physical activity is good for the body and heart, and performing vigorous activity rarely causes problems. The problem with snow is, many people who are fairly sedentary are forced to get outside and perform much more strenuous physical activity than what they are used to. This increase in physical activity by itself is not always a problem, but when coupled with other specific factors, it certainly does increase the risk of a heart attack.

One contributing factor is high blood pressure. When we go out into the cold, our blood vessels on the skin’s surface will constrict in an effort to keep our core temperature warm. This constriction can lead to elevated blood pressure. This elevated blood pressure can worsen due to the strenuous activity of moving the snow. Additionally, people often combine outside activities with coffee to “warm themselves up.” Coffee containing caffeine can act as a vasoconstrictor, elevating the blood pressure even more.

High blood pressure is not the only piece of the puzzle though. Colder weather or poor circulation can make us more prone to form blood clots as well. A blood clot in the heart can interrupt blood flow to the heart muscle, which can lead to permanent damage or a heart attack.

Should we all stop shoveling snow then? It certainly would be nice, and would save us all some sore backs, but there are some things that we can do to reduce our risk and still clear our driveways.

1. If you have any concerns, check with your doctor to make sure your heart is healthy enough to shovel snow. Some people have advanced heart disease where strenuous activity should be avoided.

2. Warm up first or ease into it.

3. Do not overdo it and make many small trips instead of fewer large ones.

4. Take frequent breaks.

5. Avoid caffeine before or after outdoor activities.

6. Stop right away if you notice a burning sensation or discomfort in your chest, or have more shortness of breath than you are used to. A discomfort in your chest is not the type of symptom that you want to “push through.”

Lastly, if you have any symptoms that do not go away with rest, or persist longer than 10-15 minutes, call 911. If you are suffering from a heart attack, the first few hours can make the biggest difference between a full recovery or long-term damage and even survival.

• • •

Eric Wallace, D.O., is a cardiologist with Kootenai Heart Clinics Northwest. To learn more about Kootenai Heart Clinics Northwest and Dr. Wallace, visit kh.org/hcnw. To schedule an appointment, call (208) 625-5250.

Article compiled by Andrea Nagel of Kootenai Health.

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