The Pains of Yard Work: How to Beat the Gardener’s Backache
It so beautiful this time of year; green trees and grass, flowers growing, and warm nights perfect for growing fruits and vegetables. At the same time, you can’t ignore all the work it takes to mow that grass, weed the flower beds, and plant vegetables in your garden. For many of us, our backs do not ignore all of this work either. Talking with several clients and friends over the past few weeks, it seems like sore and stiff backs are the rule, not the exception this season.
What is it about yard work that brings back these old, often too-familiar backaches? When out in the yard, almost everything we do requires us to bend over. Many activities occur at ground level, and many others put us in a slightly “flexed-spine” posture, i.e. raking, weed eating, shoveling, etc. Spending time in these postures where our spines are flexed puts spinal extensor muscles under constant load. In addition, these positions can increase the load our lumbar discs experience. Working in these postures is necessary, and does not have to be damaging to our bodies. The problem is, we are not conditioned to flex our low backs for these longer than normal amounts of time- if we don’t use these postures, we lose our flexibility and muscle strength!
So what can you do to alleviate and/or prevent low back pain from hindering your yard work? Here are a few ideas:
1. Reverse your posture- For every 10-15 minutes you spend bending at the waist performing yard work, stand up straight and even arch your back into extension 5-10 times if your back allows.
2. Alleviate tight low back muscles- after a yard work session, lie on your back, and pull 1 or both knees to your chest to stretch the low back muscles. Hold and stretch in each position 30-60 seconds at a time.
3. Don’t forget your hammies- tight muscles along the backs of your thighs put extra stress on your low back muscles; stretch your hamstrings before and after gardening – chose a position that works best for you.
4. Engage your abdominals- use your natural “back brace” muscles, especially when carrying dirt, lawn equipment, water buckets, etc. to support your spine. Do this by deliberately drawing your navel to your spine while performing demanding activities.
5. Pace yourself and plan!- As stated before, essentially “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”. We lose our “gardening” shape i.e. low back muscle endurance over the winter months. Don’t block out a whole Saturday to be your Super Saturday of gardening. Break tasks up into small blocks throughout the week. Listen to your body, and stop before you have notable pain in your back.
For more education, and alleviation of back pain that does not respond to these tips, please see one of the physical therapist specialists at Wasatch Physical Therapy!