Cleaning up those autumn leaves can be back-breaking, literally, unless one approaches the task with caution, proper preparation, and a yard-bag full of common sense, according to renowned endoscopic spine surgeon Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD.
“Leaf-raking is a repetitive exercise that will stress muscles and spinal discs, especially in the neck and lumbar (lower) region of the back. This is particularly true if the job is done too vigorously, performed with poor body mechanics, or conducted too long without a break,” says Dr. Liu, founder and medical director of the Atlantic Spine Center, based in New Jersey and New York. Most at risk are persons who have sustained a previous back or neck trauma, elderly individuals whose spinal discs have become dry and brittle due to normal aging, and those unaccustomed to regular, strenuous activity.
Why is the lumbar spine so vulnerable?
“The lower back is what bears the weight of the upper body. The tendency during raking is to bend forward with the head down, compressing the discs in the lumbar region and straining the cervical discs. At the same time, the stretching, twisting, and lifting involved in prolonged leaf cleanup add to spinal stress. This combination of unnatural body posture and intense exercise can push discs out of their normal position in the spinal column or cause them to rupture, leading to painful back issues, Dr. Liu says.
Discs are gel-filled capsules located between the spine’s bony vertebrae. They serve as natural “shock absorbers” and give the spine its mobility and flexibility and prevent vertebrae from rubbing together, Dr. Liu explains. A disc may “slip” if the tissue connection between the disc and spinal bone is torn (avulsed). They rupture when their outer membrane develops cracks and the inner-core material oozes out, oftentimes pressing against surrounding nerves. Herniated discs may lead to more serious disorders, such as sciatica. Sciatica is marked by ongoing pain in the lower back and buttocks and sometimes numbness in one or both legs. It occurs when a herniated lumbar disc inflames the sciatic nerve.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that leaf raking results in nearly 40,000 reports of injuries annually in this country.
The good news is that most back or neck troubles following yard work tend to be of a non-specific, acute nature, commonly involving muscle strain – “a problem that will usually resolve itself within a relatively short time span,” Dr. Liu says. The bad news: “even acute injuries can cause intense discomfort and affect quality of life – physically and mentally.”
So, if into every life (residing in a deciduous tree area, that is) some autumn leaves must fall, what is the solution to preventing a crick in the neck or aching back?
“Have the right mental attitude. That’s number one,” Dr. Liu says. “Approach leaf raking not as simply a chore to complete as quickly as possible but as an opportunity to get some healthy exercise outdoors. And, as with any exercise, it should be performed cautiously and with proper preparation.”
Echoing the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Dr. Liu offers these leaf-cleanup tips:
- Warm up muscles before raking. Stretch in the same ways recommended when preparing to engage in sports activities.
- Remember: not just any rake will do. Use an implement correct for one’s height to help keep the spine straight while raking and comfortable in weight to minimize unnecessary muscle strain.
- Use short, easy strokes to gather the leaves. Stretching out and pulling leaves from a wider area only invites strain and increases the risk of extension injuries.
- Avoid twisting at the waist; shift weight and turn the body to rake the leaves that are behind or to the side of you.
- If it does not feel too awkward, change hands occasionally when raking. Relying continuously on the dominant side to do the work increases the stress on those muscles.
- What’s the rush? Take frequent breaks, hydrate, and relax. You will have ample time to resume the task. The leaves will still be there.
- Be kind to your back. Keep leaf volume to a reasonable level in the yard bags that you eventually have to carry. And apply proper technique when lifting the bags. Squat and use your legs to propel upwards.
Finally, “should you believe raking might put your back or neck at risk, purchase a leaf blower or borrow one from a neighbor to make the job a whole lot easier. Even better, pay a local teenager to do the work while you watch football,” Dr. Liu laughs.