Katie Thompson, OT | Clinic Manager
With spring at the doorstep and the promise of longer days ahead, many are eager to get into their yards to bring their gardens to life.
Gardening can be a positive and fulfilling movement activity. It can also lead to muscle aches and joint pain if proper body mechanics and general safety guidelines are not followed. Common gardening and yard work activities — digging, planting, weeding, mulching, mowing and raking — can cause stress and strain on muscles and joints. This is especially true for senior citizens and others who have been sedentary in the past months.
Tips to help minimize pain or prevent injury
Many different body areas — including shoulders, limbs, neck, back, and knees — can be vulnerable to injury during gardening. If you haven’t done gardening or other yard work in a while, consider incorporating these tips for pain-free gardening sessions:
- Warm up before you garden. A ten-minute brisk walk and gentle stretches for the spine and limbs are effective ways to warm up.
- Use the right tools. Choose tools with longer handles or those designed to position your wrist correctly. Soft, non-slip handles protect joints from pressure while work gloves protect skin. Use a watering wand when working overhead. Alternate arms and take breaks before feelings of strain set in.
- Plan for comfort. Sit down while working whenever you can by using seats, scooters and benches. If you must kneel, use knee pads or gardening pads to give your knees a break. If kneeling on both knees causes discomfort in your back, try kneeling on one and keep the other foot on the ground. Changing positions frequently helps avoid stiffness or cramping.
- Limit lifting. Use a lawn cart or small wagon to move tools and materials. Take the time to divide heavy loads. When you do lift, bend from the knees to avoid strain on your back.If you can’t avoid lifting bags of mulch or pulling weeds, use good body mechanics. Bend your knees, tighten your abdominal muscles and keep your back straight as you lift or pull. Avoid twisting your spine or knees when moving things off to the side. Instead, move your feet or pivot on your toes to turn your full body as one unit.
- Vary your tasks. Keep gardening tasks varied to avoid excessive stress on any groups of muscles or joints. Be aware of how your body feels as you work in the garden.If a certain part of your body starts to ache, take a break, stretch that body part in the opposite direction, or switch to a different gardening activity. For example, if you’ve been leaning forward for more than a few minutes and your back starts to ache, slowly stand up and gently lean backward a few times.
- Adapt to your environment. Consider raised beds and trellises to reduce bending and strain on joints. Choose plant varieties requiring less care to reduce the number of tasks. Investigate permanent watering systems that also conserve resources. Schedule your digging when the soil is moist. Ensure the soil is not hard, dry or heavily soaked so that less force is required when digging and planting.
End your gardening session with a short walk and gentle stretching, similar to stretches done before starting.
What to do if you experience pain
Pain that lasts more than a day or two means you may have done too much.
If you do sustain an injury doing yard work, gardening or any other tasks, address the pain and soreness early.