Enjoy the garden, avoid back pain this spring

At the beginning of spring our gardens begin to stir, the flowers start to bloom and everything gets a new lease on life. Things that grow need care and when the hedges start shooting skyward and the weeds erupt from everywhere a lot of us get back out into the garden.

Unfortunately at this time of year we physios tend to catch up with many of our gardening friends for all the wrong reasons. The incidents of low back pain definitely increase and, as the greenery grows, we see more people with ‘tennis’ elbow and shoulder pain.

Gardening inherently puts strain on the lower back, especially the discs. So if you’re a keen (or even an unwilling) gardener it may be worthwhile keeping a few things in mind.

Try and keep your lower back straight. When we do tasks like digging, weeding, and mulching, bending at the knees with a straight back helps reduce the pressure on the discs.  Disc injuries happen when the lower back flexes (rounds a little) during sudden load, or simply from staying in a flexed position for too long.

The analogy of jam in a sandwich helps illustrate what happens to the disc. When we bend forward (or squeeze the front of the sandwich) the inside of the disc can move backwards putting pressure on the ligamentous rim of the disc, or even causing the back of the disc to bulge.

Taking the time to straighten up and arch your back helps to balance pressures in the disc – remember to always be guided by pain. Likewise straightening up before coughing or sneezing avoids putting even more pressure on the spine.

There are important deep abdominal muscles that help stabilise the lower back when activated. Gently switching on these core muscles is like activating an inbuilt back brace and can help protect your back. If you’re not quite sure what and where they are you can ask a physiotherapist. A physio can give you expert advice and tailor the information to your activities.

Gardening is very task oriented, we tend to do it until the job is done, rather than when we’ve reached fatigue. It’s important to recognise your level of fatigue because when stabilising muscles tire they can no longer protect the back. You wouldn’t continue at the gym and you shouldn’t continue in the garden. It leaves the joints and discs at risk of injury. So take time for breaks, change tasks or stop for the day.

Lastly, be aware that sometimes the origin of back pain is in what you do after all the work has finished. When you stop to enjoy your hard earned rest, don’t slouch in a couch, be kind to your back and sit with some lumbar support – put a cushion behind your back, or sit in a firm chair – it’ll feel better, and your back will love you for it.

So this spring, keep safe and enjoy your garden!

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About the Author

Uta completed a Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) at Sydney University in 1991. She worked in the public hospital systems in Newcastle and Canberra and moved into private practice in 1994. She enjoys treating a wide variety of musculoskeletal problems with a special interest in neck and shoulder pain.

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