Staying Safe While Gardening

Uprooting Bad Gardening Habits: How to Avoid Injuries this Spring

Spring means warmer weather, sunshine, and returning to outdoor activities but to a physical therapist it means something slightly different. In my world, April activities usually bring May referrals. During spring months, it is common to see an increase of patients with shoulder and back issues from repetitive injuries sustained while gardening. Let me share a few quick tips with you to keep you happy and injury free this season.

Shoulders

Injuries at the shoulders or upper extremities while gardening can typically be categorized as repetitive stress injuries. Repetitive injuries occur with a high volume of the same action repeated over a period of time. The higher the number of repetitions, greater the force of the action, and the lower the amount of breaks taken between repetitions, the higher the risk for injury. So what you’re really doing when you’re out planting for 4–5 hours straight on the first nice sunny day is stressing your body repetitively without giving it a chance to rest and recover.

Throw in the fact that most people are typically more sedentary during the winter months and therefore slightly weaker meaning you’re going to have to increase the amount of force used to accomplish the same task. Taking all of this in to account, you can easily see why gardening can be the perfect recipe for a soft tissue injury. Follow these quick tips to keep your shoulders from burning out day one:
 

  • Take frequent breaks, allow your body time to heal and rest. Do not try to get all of your planting done in one day. Your body will thank you for splitting tasks up in to multiple days.
  • Garden with a friend or family member and rotate jobs. One of you digs for a short period of time, then switch.
  • If you have to lift heavy items, get assistance from someone or practice good lifting form: bend at your knees and not your back, bring the item close to your body, and then stand up. Use a wheelbarrow or garden cart if heavy items need to be transported long distances.
  • Use ergonomic tools when possible. Digging with the arm in the best posture possible will decrease your risk of injury. Remember sustained poor posture for a long period of time is the same as a constant force or strain on the soft tissue.

Back

Avoiding back injuries while gardening comes down to one word: posture. When I'm out for a walk and I see a neighbor or stranger gardening, I smile and wave like everyone else, but in my head I am noticing all the indicators of future back pain. Bending forward at the hips with the back rounded, knees locked and straight. Do not let this be you! Here are a few tips to keep your back happy while planting this spring:
 

  • Keep your back as straight and aligned as possible by using long handed tools or tool extenders.
  • Use raised beds and sit on a short stool, if possible.
  • If you have to get down to ground level, kneel on a pad on one knee if you are able. This will encourage you to maintain a good posture. We tend to still stoop over and round at the back when we kneel on both knees.
  • Avoid jerky, twisting movements while digging.
  • Check in with yourself often. If you feel your posture or form suffering, take a rest break, do something completely different, and come back to the garden later.

By making a few minor changes to your posture and gardening habits you can stay healthy, injury free, and in the garden all summer. Try to be mindful of your posture, take your time, take breaks often and enjoy the sunshine. The weeds will still be there when you get back!

Paige Raab, PT, DPT is a licensed physical therapist at Mettler Center. Do you have questions regarding safe practices while gardening? Ask an Expert. Do you have shoulder or back pain? Your injury can be evaluated by a physical therapist who can detect functional problems and make the best possible recommendation for treatment. Call 217-398-9800 to schedule a free 30-minute consultation with a physical therapist or request an appointment online.