How Not to Hurt your Back in the Garden

Gardeners of all ages but especially us Social-Security-eligible gardeners know all too well that gardening can lead to injuries.  We use sharp tools, sometimes in a hurry.  We venture barefoot into the garden and step on things we wish we hadn’t.  We use hedge clippers for too long at a stretch, and repetitive motion problems arrive.

But most of all, we hurt our backs from bending over.  I’ve been there.  I AM there, regularly.  So I’ve done lots of research, online and by asking professionals, about the care and prevention of back injuries.

As for preventing injuries, we all know to bend at the knees when lifting.  We weren’t born yesterday so of course we know to do that!

A less obvious prevention technique is to do regular exercises that strengthen the big muscles in the torso and thighs that can take the load off our tired old back muscles when we’re working hard.  For that I use weights and Pilates every other day.  I came to Pilates by way of an injury that needed attention, which was given expertly by a physical therapist who specializes in Pilates.   After I was all better, I took several Pilates classes and since then have continued to do the exercises at home.  I also try to remember to keep a Pilates stance – abdominal muscles engaged, not slack – as often as possible, and I manage to remember to do when I’m walking.  Usually.

Now about stretching before gardening.  I confess that I don’t stretch first and my excuse (other than always being in a big hurry to get to work in the garden) is the conflicting advice I’ve read – specifically, that we should always warm up the muscles before stretching them.  Makes sense to me!  But does that mean I start my daily gardening work with a one-mile walk followed by a stretching session before picking up a single tool?  No way!  So thanks to the conflicting medical advice – and that impatience I mentioned – I’m skipping the stretching and getting right to the gardening.

More Bad Back Practices I May be Guilty Of
So now I’ll confess to how I put myself out of commission with the worst back injury of my gardening career, and it involves the one back-safety rule that goes without saying.  To wit: when in pain, stop doing whatever you’re doing.  Really, really obvious, but that’s the rule I broke.  But ya know, when guests are coming for lunch and the front yard’s a mess, not to mention the deck where we’ll be having lunch, you keep at it for just a little longer.

So  by the time my lunch guests arrived, I was in so much pain they had to wait on me.  And lots of ice packs and some serious drugs later, I was able to dress myself but not without everything hurting like crazy.

Another bad idea is to ever, ever bend while twisting to one side – everyone says this is the one action most likely to result in back injury.  (“Everyone” refers to the orthopedists, physical therapists and massage therapists I’ve consulted with.)  So, don’t do what the gardener in the photo on the right is doing;  I bet she was sorry she did.  The gardener on the left is positioned to bend in a much safer way.

Got Back Pain?
Eager to get the absolute best advice for lower back pain, I googled those words and found, among the typical mishmash of Internet info, this information from the National Institutes of Health, and it was just what I needed.  Ice for three days, THEN heat.  Anti-inflammatories.  No bedrest.  Anonymous writers in little-known government agency, thank you!

Photo credits: Gardener on the left.  Gardener on the right.  Back illustration courtesy the NIH.

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