Tips to prevent back pain while gardening

3 Tips to Prevent Back Pain While Gardening

With the change in seasons often comes a renewed interest in gardening for many. It is a popular hobby in the U.S. with some surveys saying as many as 86% of homeowners plan to plant, dig, and grow things this year. While there’s nothing better than a garden bursting with vibrant veggies and fragrant flowers – all the work required to make a beautiful garden (lifting heavy pots and plants and bending, twisting, and reaching to plant, dig, and water) can lead to back and neck pain, and even injuries. Gardening is a great activity for your mental and physical health and can be done individually as a stress reliever, or with your family as a fun, outdoor activity. While being outside in the sun can work wonders for stress levels, it can cause extra strain on your back if done extensively and in uncomfortable positions, and even worse if you already suffer from existing neck or back pain. 

This became an unfortunate reality for one of my patients. Every spring/summer for the last 20 years, you could find Kathryn, a 65-year-old real estate agent from Winchester, in her garden. But that changed last year when a pinched nerve in her neck caused pain, numbness, and tingling in her hand. It got so bad she couldn’t move in the way she needed to for gardening and had to let the weeds take over.

I couldn’t do it because of the pain,” Kathryn says. “The pinched nerve caused pain that would radiate down my arm and that didn’t leave me a lot of strength to pull weeds and dig for planting so I didn’t garden last year at all. Every year come springtime, the dirt calls me and I have to put something in the ground so I missed that.”

As her symptoms worsened, Kathryn came to me for help. She was suffering from severe arm pain and weakness because of the pinching of the nerves in her neck going into her arms. She was even experiencing weakness and difficulty with fine motor skills in her arms because her spinal cord was getting pinched as well. I wanted to give her back her strength in her arms and prevent the problem in her neck from causing permanent nerve damage so she could enjoy gardening again. It was clear Kathryn needed a spinal fusion in her neck, which she underwent in November 2020. 

I can’t believe I waited so long to get it done,” Kathryn says. “My biggest worry was the recovery. I thought it would be horrible and I would be laid up for so long and I wasn’t at all. I didn’t feel the pain that I expected I would with surgery either. I was amazed it was so different than what I expected.” 

Typically with gardening, there’s a lot of heavy lifting, reaching, bending, & twisting and those repetitive movements can put considerable strain on your back and neck.

3 TIPS TO AVOID NECK & BACK PAIN IN THE GARDEN

  1. Use Ergonomic Tools: Generally, garden tools that are lighter and have longer handles are most optimal to avoid pain in the garden. There are lots of products that help you do the work from an upright, standing position rather than having to kneel or overextend. Another great investment is a cushion to kneel on. Whether you grab an old pillow from inside or purchase something more suited for gardening, any way to alleviate the pressure on your body will benefit you.
    One personal tip I have implemented in my garden is raised garden beds. Raised beds elevate your gardening area, reducing the need to bend over as much. They can be built to a height that’s comfortable for you, allowing you to access your plants while standing or sitting on a stool. Raised beds can also improve drainage and soil quality, making your gardening experience more enjoyable and less physically taxing.
  1. Lift with Caution: Improper lifting is one of the biggest triggers in the garden that causes back pain. There are lots of large items in gardening – from plants and pots to heavy bags of mulch and gravel. Whether you already suffer from back pain or just want to protect your back, keep your back straight and bend from your knees when you lift and use a wheelbarrow or wagon if you can for heavier objects. Working lower to the ground while you’re planting can also minimize bending. There are lots of great gardening stools that can help with this movement.
  1. Listen to Your Body & Take Breaks: Consider taking a short break to reset about every 15-20 minutes. Stand up, lift your arms to the sky, and stretch your body. This helps to avoid muscle soreness and over-straining that causes back pain. When you’re out in the fresh air and sunshine doing something you love – time can fly and you don’t realize how long you’ve been stressing and working your back.

But there are times these protective efforts don’t help, and that’s when you need to reach out to a spine specialist for a consultation. As for Kathryn – she did physical therapy after her procedure to improve her strength, and this spring & summer she is back in her garden. I just saw her again in late May for her six-month post-op visit and she’s doing great and reporting 0/10 on a pain scale. She says she had a fair amount of weeds to remove, and she happily told me she did it with no problems.

Kathryn has also now planted 20 tomato plants, and pumpkins, and has a flower garden too. She says she’s still amazed each time she reaches for a weed, or to till the dirt, and doesn’t feel a pang of pain.

“I’m always like – oh – that didn’t hurt. It just doesn’t hurt at all now. I’m amazed and so thankful to Dr. Jazini for making it better and I’m happy to be back in my garden.”

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