The snow is gone, the sun is out, and the birds are back—which means it’s time for the yearly spring cleaning. With spring yard work, however, comes a lot of physically demanding tasks that can lead to pain or even injury. What can you do to stay safe and avoid back pain?
Prevent Back Pain
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 230,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms yearly for injuries related to lawn and garden work. Follow these recommendations for yard work safety and pain-free spring cleaning.
Warm Up & Cool Down
Try these stretches both before and after your gardening and yard work to keep your body loose and prevent low back pain.
- Knees to chest: Lie on your back and hug your knees into your chest by wrapping your arms around your shins or grabbing onto your knees. Press your back into the floor and hold for a minute. Rest, then repeat twice more.
- Chair stretch: Sit near the edge of your chair. Slowly bend forward until your hands touch the floor. Relax your weight forward and relax all back muscles from the crown of your head down to your hips. Hold for as long as you are comfortable. This stretch helps to both relieve and prevent back pain.
- Seated figure four: This stretch is great for those with lower back pain extending down the leg into the rear end. Sitting at the edge of your chair once more, place the outside of your right ankle on top of your left thigh. Lengthen your spine and gently bend forward until you feel a satisfying stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Yard Work Safety Tips
The key to staying safe during yard work is to work smarter, not harder! Keep these tips in mind:
- Eliminate hazards. Survey your yard and land for any hazards, such as damaged tree branches that can fall, ditches or uneven ground, and obstacles like stepping stones and garden stakes. You’ll want to make sure the ground is even to prevent trips and falls.
- Hydrate. Your muscles need water to function optimally. Staying hydrated during physical activity allows your muscles to coordinate with each other properly, so they can support your body while it’s working. Plus, sufficient water intake will prevent muscle cramps or spasms and dehydration.
- Keep it fresh. Move from task to task while gardening or working outside. Prune for a bit, then rake for a bit, then weed for a bit . . . you get the picture. Just don’t continuously perform any specific activity for a long period of time; that’s how muscles get overworked and extra sore.
- There is a right way to mow the lawn. Maintain proper posture and push with your arms and legs rather than your back. Leaning forward while pushing the lawn mower can lead to a strained back.
- Weed mindfully. Bending over at the waist for prolonged periods can certainly cause or exacerbate back pain. Kneel on a rubber gardening mat, sit on a wheeled gardening stool, or sit directly on the ground. Keep your tools nearby so you’re not leaning every which way to grab them.
- Lift with your knees! Many people make the mistake of bending and lifting with the back and waist, which can cause serious back pain from pulled muscles. When you lift that bag of dirt or mulch, keep your back straight and bend with your knees and hips while reaching down. The power comes from your butt and legs. Don’t overdo it, either—keep waste piles small and light.
- Rake with both sides of your body. It may feel awkward to rake not with your dominant hand, but switching sides every few minutes will ensure one side of your body is not overused. This will prevent soreness in your back, neck, and arms.
- Supportive footwear counts. Yard work can put a lot of strain on your feet and legs. Wearing shoes with solid foot and arch support can stop that strain from reaching your back. Choose strong sneakers or work boots over flimsy sandals or slip-ons. Also make sure your shoes have solid traction in order to prevent slip-and-fall injuries.
- It’s not a race! Pace yourself and take breaks. You’re less likely to injure yourself if you take your time. If you push yourself to the point of exhaustion, your body will pay the price when you forget to mind your posture or lift properly.
- Hire younger help. If you already suffer from chronic back pain or some other kind of persistent health issue, consider hiring a young neighbor. Many teens and young adults have trouble finding summer jobs, and may appreciate the offer to help you out for a few hours a week!
Yard and gardening work involves a lot of forward bending or movement, so one of the most important things is to keep your hips and shoulders moving toward the work, instead of twisting your back.
Always step forward with one foot and bend slightly at the knee during tasks like raking or shoveling. This keeps your upper body upright in a partial lunge to reduce strain.
Do not let yourself get so caught up in your tasks that you forget the correct way to move your body. Occupational therapist Michael Milicia, OT/L, says, “I would suggest using pain as a reminder to pause and say, “Can I reposition myself?” It’s not the activities themselves that will cause you pain, but how to do them.
Yard Work Back Pain Relief
If you did your best to follow these tips but still wound up with low back pain, try some conservative treatments such as:
- Heat or Cold Therapy: Aches can be soothed with moist heat from a hot shower or bath. Cold therapy is only recommended for treatment of a bad bruise or acute pain because it will prevent further inflammation. While applying your heat or cold pack, rest with a pillow propped behind your back and under your knees to help reduce lower back pain.
- Massage Therapy: Another treatment for your aches and pains is massage therapy, which will soothe sore muscles and boost circulation. Massage will also loosen up tight muscles and work out knots from all your yard work.
Tasks like raking and weeding may have also thrown your back out of alignment; massage can help with this too. If you enjoy gardening and yard work, but find pain getting in the way, a massage chair may be the perfect option for you. That way, you can massage away any pain and stiffness at the end of every tough day outside.
- Keep Moving: Don’t just sit there! Your couch may be inviting after a tough day working outside, but sitting still will only increase muscle stiffness and soreness. Stretch afterward and stay mobile to prevent that tightness from setting in.
These tips and treatments should help you stay safe and healthy during yard work, but if you experience pain that persists or worsens, consult your physician.
You should also talk to your doctor before performing any physically demanding activities such as gardening if you have a history of chronic back pain, heart disease, or other medical conditions. Put your health and safety before a freshly manicured lawn—even if those weeds seem to be taking over!
About the Author: Jenny Morris is a New Hampshire-based writer who contributes web content to sites covering everything from technology, home goods, social media, and travel. Jenny hails from Massachusetts, and has lived in The Granite State ever since she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a bachelor of arts in communication. Jenny also performs freelance social media work and creative projects. She spends her downtime traveling, reading, and being active.