Gardening season is upon us! And you know what that means, right? Low back pain! Let's review a few tips to help get you through the season without difficulty.
1) Start each session with 5-7 repetitions of the cat-camel (or cat-cow) exercise. This exercise is performed from the quadruped position, or the on-all-fours positions, with your hands placed directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Then begin to slowly alternate between flexion and extension of your spine. Do so by arching your back towards the ceiling and lowering your head towards the floor, then lower your belly towards the floor and look up towards to ceiling. Avoid extremes of motion if they cause pain. This is not a stretch, rather a continuous movement though the range of motion.
2) Warm up with a 5-10 minute brisk walk to get the blood flowing. This is a great way to dynamically warm up instead of stretching. There is no evidence that suggests stretching before an activity prevents injury. Actually, the common stretch of bending over and touching your toes can increase the likelihood of injury before activity.
3) Vary your gardening tasks, pruning, raking, digging, etc. Do not continuously perform any particular activity for a long period of time. Planning your tasks ahead of time can help with this, as well as placing your tools in a bucket for easier transport. When you do need to be in a kneeling position, try to use a kneeling pad or a kneeler equipped with handles to help with getting up and down from the ground. You can also consider using tools with an adjustable length handle to allow working from a standing or seated position.
4) Bending and lifting should be performed using the hip-hinge bend technique with all of the movement coming through your hips instead of your low back. Add a bend to your knees and keep your back in a neutral position to minimize stress on the lumbar spine. The power of your lift should come from your buttock and legs. It is also critical to abdominally brace (tense the abdominal wall as if you were anticipating being struck in the gut) during the lift to increase the stability in your low back.
5) When shoveling, spread your feet to give create a wide supportive stance and avoid twisting your body. Instead, picot and re-position with your feet.
Another option is to hire the kids around the neighborhood to assist you. Gardening is a physical activity, and you will protect your back if you exercise regularly and follow the tips listed above. Just as an athlete would train and condition for his or her sport to avoid injury. If you need to improve flexibility, gently stretch AFTER gardening or exercise. Consider the cat-camel, sphinx, child's pose etc. for stretching.
Good luck out there and happy gardening!
Ross Dubin, D.C.