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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Oh, my aching back!

Don't Let Yard Work Break You

Every year I see a spike in the number of patients as a result of the spring season.  This is mostly due to the naturally occurring events of spring… grass growing, flowers emerging, leaves popping, and of course yard work.  It is inevitable; we work just as hard getting the yard ready for warmer weather as Mother Nature.  The only difference is that Mother Nature has not been sitting on her couch all winter getting out of shape!

Why is the risk of spinal injury so high in the spring?  For one, we are naturally less active in the winter months for obvious reasons – less daylight and cold weather.  This inactivity deconditions our very important spinal stabilizers and the large muscles of the legs.  


Even if you spend time in the gym all winter “staying in shape”, the most important muscles you utilize for yard work, the spinal erector spinae (your back muscles), are often not getting enough regular work to get you in shape for the rigors of spring yard work.  The nature of yard work has us putting our spines in extreme flexion for long periods of time, which makes it very susceptible to injury.

What can you do to reduce the risk for back pain and injury?
  1. Warm up a little before you begin.  Take a walk get the heart rate up and the blood bumping to the muscles.  This warms up the muscles before you even start.  Avoid strenuous activities, especially lifting for the first 30 minutes. You may want to even stretch out a little before you begin.
  2. Limit the amount of time you are spending bent over. Activities such as picking up sticks, picking up leaves, or weeding involve extreme flexion of the spine and put tremendous pressure on your spinal discs.  So do not perform these activities for more than 30 minutes at a time without a break. 
  3. Break up your yardwork activities.  Raking and especially shoveling are very repetitive and become demanding on the spine over time, so only perform these activities for 30 minutes or so and then do something else for 15 to 30 minutes before returning to the raking or shoveling.  Keep the knees bent a little and the spine straight when performing these activities.
  4. Prepare your spine for any heavy lifting!  By doing some repeated back bends (8 to 10) before and after you lift, you help to reduce pressure on your spinal disc.  If possible, do your heavy lifting early in your day (after you have warmed up).  Leaving it to the end of the day when your muscles are fatigued could lead to an increased risk of injury.  (This same advice applies to shoveling as well.)
  5. Use your legs!  The old saying “put your back into it” will have you seeking treatment in no time.  There is a reason your leg muscles are the longest and largest muscles in your body.  They create your power.  Use them instead of your back muscles, which are much smaller in size, by keeping your spine straight. (If you are looking at your feet, your spine is bent.)  We commonly use our back because our legs are frequently out of shape and we feel that “burning” lactic acid building up. 
  6. Pace yourself!  I know it would be nice to get it all done in one weekend, but this may put you flat on your back.  You need to determine, based on your overall health and your stamina, how much time you are going to work.  For most people an hour or two is a good stopping point for an extended break.
Yes, you want the yard to look good, but you want to enjoy it in the nice spring weather without back pain.  Follow the tips above and you will have a good looking yard and a healthy back!