Thinking ahead to yard cleanup as the chill of fall and winter approaches? Then it’s wise to also know the ways to avoid back strain as you weed, rake and dig your way through your outdoor chores, recommends Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
Many avid gardeners forget that yard work is physical exercise that’s capable of injuring you if you don’t proceed carefully, Dr. Chang says. In fact, yard work is one of the top causes of back pain during the months leading to winter, when many heavy chores get done to ready the yard for its fallow months. “Lots of people love yard work but are rightly worried about flaring their existing back strain or creating a new source of back pain,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist who’s double board-certified in interventional pain management and anesthesiology. “A long day in the yard, no matter how much you enjoy it, can definitely take a toll on your back. You don’t want the pleasure of yard work to turn into a temporary or lingering problem.”
Preventing back pain
Yard work and gardening should be treated like the exercise it is, Dr. Chang says. Accordingly, use these tips to avoid the small injuries that can lead to major back pain from overworking back muscles in the yard:
Warm up: You’d warm up before a gym workout, so do the same before mowing, weeding, mulching, digging and other backyard chores. Take a light stroll around the garden and stretch your leg, back, neck and arm muscles before getting started.
Stay hydrated: Yard work often leads to perspiration – sometimes profuse. Replace lost water to ward off muscle cramping and spasms that can lead to back injuries.
Squat instead of bending: Ripping out weeds or planting bulbs for next spring is easier on the spine when you squat instead of bending over, Dr. Chang says.
Lift from the legs: Muscles in the thighs and glutes are much better-suited to lifting heavy loads, like mulch, than muscles in the lower back.
Mix it up: Frequently move from one type of gardening activity to another, giving different sets of muscles time to rest.
Wear supportive shoes: Believe it or not, yard work can place a lot of strain on feet and legs, but good foot and arch support can prevent that strain from traveling up your back. Don’t wear sandals or flip-flops while gardening – opt for sturdy sneakers or boots instead.
Use the right tools: Let your yard tools do some of the work instead of your back muscles, Dr. Chang advises. For example, trimmers, also known as “weed eaters,” keep you upright while edging and weeding. Similarly, a retractable garden hose makes it easier to carry around while watering various areas of the yard.
Easing back strain
What if your best efforts fail to stop back strain from developing after yard work? Conservative, home-based treatments almost always work in these cases, Dr. Chang says. They include:
Apply heat or ice: Typically, ice works better for newer injuries, while heat is reserved for “older” muscle strain that flares up, he says.
Light exercise: You might feel like doing nothing, but light physical activity such as walking and stretching helps keep muscles limber and speed recovery after back strain, Dr. Chang notes.
Physical therapy: See your doctor about undergoing a physical therapy regimen, which can help repair and strengthen core muscles that support your spine. “Physical therapy can help prevent new back injuries from happening, which is the ultimate goal,” Dr. Chang says.