Preventing Gardener’s Trauma
After a long, snowy Michigan winter, the first warm and sunny day, we charge outside and clean up the yard. The months snow bound in the house have made the gardeners eager to start the spring clean up and prepare for the summer to come. Most of us will spend the winter in a fairly sedentary physical state and with no physical preparation to launch into hours of challenging outdoor work activity. Every year at our clinics, we treat patients with gardening and yard work induced injuries that could have been prevented with some modifications of activity and preventative exercise. These are my four hints to help safeguard my gardener friends from an unintended trip to the doctor’s office.
#1: Set a Time Limit.
Most of the patients we see with gardener trauma report that they worked “all afternoon” in the yard. It is not uncommon to hear patients report they were bending, pushing, or pulling for five or six hours. Use some caution and limit the duration of your weeding, raking, and shoveling. Set a time limit of two hours and then stop–the garden will be their tomorrow and you will be less likely to have to undergo a springtime MRI.
#2: Use Proper Ergonomics.
Many gardening tasks place your body in challenging positions. Ergonomic experts go to great lengths to eliminate forward trunk flexion and sustained knee flexion from industrial work settings. Pulling weeds and cleaning out flowerbeds combines both of these positions and can create mechanical back and knee pain. Avoid being in the “hands and knees” position for extended periods of time by changing positions frequently. Use knee pads to reduce compressive forces on the knee joints and purchase gardening tools with extended handles so that you need not bend as far or as often.
#3: Avoid Lifting Heavy Objects.
After a sedentary winter spent indoors watching television and knitting, the last thing you should attempt is to hoist the 40 lb. bag of fertilizer into the back of the wheelbarrow. Lifting injuries increase dramatically with loads greater than 25 pounds. Lifting any object from the floor to standing is risky, and carrying unstable loads that can shift around increases stress on the body. Divide heavy loads into smaller portions and avoid lifting directly off the floor. Get a bigger, stronger, and fitter neighbor or family member to help with heavy lifting tasks.
#4: Prepare For Battle.
Gardening and yard work are challenging tasks that should be met with a degree of preparation. If you want to work for five hours in the garden and remain pain free, you must train your body for that level of activity. I have selected three simple exercises you can do to get yourself ready for action in the yard. Simple modification of ergonomics, limitations on work duration, and preparatory exercise can prevent a summer of pain.
Getting Ready To Toil In The Soil.
These three exercises can help you avoid injury and make your spring gardening safer and more productive. Ideally you will perform these drills three times a week for two or three weeks before getting outside and working.
Hip Flexor Stretches
This stretch elongates the large muscle that runs across the front of the hip and attaches to the spine. This region tends to tighten with prolonged sitting and can restrict hip and spinal motion. Place one knee up on a cushioned chair and the other foot slightly forward on the floor. Keep the spine tall and bend the front knee to stretch the hip flexor muscles. Hold for five to ten seconds and repeat five times. Perform the stretch on the other side.
Four Point Fold Ups
If you are going to spend time on all fours, it is a good idea to train your body for this task. Assume a four-point position, knees under the hips and hands under the shoulders. Keep the hands stationary and drop the hips back toward the heels. Go back to the point you feel a stretch and hold–do not stretch into pain. You may feel this in your hips, shoulders, lower back, or upper back. Hold for five to ten seconds and repeat five times.
Gardening and yard work involves a lot of squatting. Being able to safely squat allows you to lift with better body mechanics. Simple bodyweight squats will strengthen the legs and trunk in preparation for these tasks. Place your feet at least shoulder width apart. Check the foot width with a full length mirror– most people squat with the feet too close together. Keep the heels flat on the floor and squat down by pushing the hips back. Work on maintaining balance and control during the motion. Practicing this movement pattern will also improve your flexibility. Perform a series of ten repetitions and then rest and perform another set of ten.
Michael O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS