Have a read of the couple of examples below of people hurting themselves, and even the medically uneducated would say “Why did you do that”? Here goes:

  • A runner has had 6 months completely off running, yet decides on their first run back that they will do double the distance run they did 6 months ago at their peak of fitness.
  • A gym junkie who goes to the gym 3 times a week has 8 months off the gym and decides on their first session back to do exactly the same weights, repetitions and sets as they did all those months ago!

The list could go on and on, and 99.9% of people wouldn’t ever make any of these mistakes because common sense tells you it’s stupidity and the chance of causing injury would be almost certain.

Why then are people surprised when they end up in our clinic with acute back pain, having just completed 3 hours of pushing/pulling/lifting/bending/rotating/reaching, whilst making the most of the first sunny day for the season, cleaning up the overgrown winter garden? We’ve already had the first quota of people book physio appointments for this – spending half a September day in the garden when their most recent gardening day (which was nowhere near as intense as the massive Spring clean-up) was in April – 6 months ago! Sort of makes sense doesn’t it!

Gardening and general back yard cleaning involves more repetitive, continuous, and awkward positions than most other activities, yet give most of us a bit of sun and blue sky, a hint of warmth in the air, and out we go to “build Rome in a day”! We could possibly be safer being the runner or gym junkie above.

Unfortunately for many of us, and certainly those with a previous history of back pain, if you haven’t done a lot over the long winter break, spending half a day in the garden first up probably isn’t going to be your smartest Spring decision!

So…how can we reduce the risk of “Gardeners Back”?

Here’s a few tips to help:

  • Probably the smartest thing to do is to try not to let the garden get out of control over winter! A bit of a trim here, pulling a few weeds there, pruning whilst the bush is not out of control – just a little bit of general maintenance from time to time can make an enormous difference and save you from the need for a massive first session clean up!
  • And possibly the second smartest thing (or maybe this should be first) is to stay fit and strong over Winter. Most of us keen gardeners are my age demographic and above (because we are lucky enough to have a reasonable garden in our homes), we feel the winter cold a fraction more than we used to, and all the fitness activities like walking, jogging, swimming and riding are much more enjoyable with the sun on our backs! But as each winter passes, so does another birthday, and our muscles and joints simply need some sort of consistent strength and resistance based exercise. If your body stays fit and strong and supple, you’ve got more defence against the rigors of gardening.
  • But… if you’ve hibernated over winter, not at your peak physical conditioning, and the garden is out of control, try these other tips to help avoid an SSPC physio elbow massaging up and down your back:
  • Don’t garden for hours on end: Whilst it seems like a good idea at the time, getting the whole process done in a day rarely ends up well. Break the garden into small and manageable tasks – attack it an hour or two at a time, over a few days, or a few weekends. Set yourself a goal of getting that garden in perfect condition over a month, not a weekend, and certainly not a day!
  • Change your position and posture: one of the problems with gardening is the prolonged and awkward postures – pushing your back into positions and angles that it hasn’t been for a long time. Now the back is a pretty resilient structure, and can cope with these positons and postures well – if it is conditioned to do so! But give it a break – do a back bending task (like weeding) for a short period of time, then change to a standing task (like pruning a bush) and then return to a bit more weeding. I know once we start a task we want to finish it, bit it’s really no big deal having regular swaps between tasks that ensure the back (and shoulders and neck for that matter) have different stresses placed on them).
  • Go and buy a kneeling pad from Bunnings – bending to the ground for long periods whilst still standing is a sure-fire way to strain your back. A simple and cheap kneeling pad is light, portable, and comfortable, and means your back will be under a lot less stress, and your knees will be comfortable too.
  • Whilst you’re at Bunnings, investing in a few good tools might be cheaper than a few physio sessions! Long handled hoes, adjustable length clippers etc all result in less bending, leaning and twisting.
  • Shift your load in small quantities – another regular injury at the clinic is the back or shoulder pain caused by the person lifting ALL the shopping bags from the boot of the car, rather than just making two trips! Similarly, we get to the end of our days gardening, and shift or lift the whole load in one overloaded barrow or one massive gardening bag – just break it into smaller lots and do a few trips! Or use a trolley with wheels rather than lifting or dragging.
  • Ladders: well, best we just say stay off them!
  • Get inside and do your back exercises after your gardening session. Amazing how people only do their exercises AFTER the pain has come. If you have been given stretching exercises in the past for back or neck or shoulder pain, chances are they will still be appropriate as a defensive mechanism, so if you’ve just spent hours in the garden, take a little time at the end of the day to get in and give your back a stretch.

All sounds so simple, but when the sun is shining, the warmth is making us feel great, and the garden looks awful, it takes a little bit of common sense to make sure we end up feeling as good as the end of day garden looks!

Anthony Lance

SSPC Physiotherapist