A note to my past self, regarding my self-inflicted gardening injury. A blog by Russ Gothard, PT
I hurt my back last weekend. I felt it happen, too. I was filling a planter full of dirt that I’d loosened and picked through to remove all the weeds. Like the expert on body mechanics that I am, I bent forwards, took a huge scoop of dirt, lifted with my back, and twisted to dump the dirt out. Something tweaked, and all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe deeply without serious pain. Now here we are a week later, and my back is feeling lots better but in the meantime I’ve spent a lot of time silently cursing my past self.
As a physiotherapist, I should know how to avoid gardening-related injuries. So, this blog post is to my past self.
Dear past Russ: unfortunately, you are constrained by the same laws of physics and biology as everybody else. Not only do you have the knowledge to have avoided injuring yourself last weekend, you actually considered following your own advice before thinking “nah, it’ll never happen to me”. So, here it is laid out clearly – this is how you can minimize your chance of being in pain for another whole week.
Next time you have to do all that heavy garden work, please refer back to these handy tips.
Shoveling heavy things, working in a stooped position, and laying patio stones counts as exercise, and any exercise should come with a warmup. Past Russ, you’re not 18 anymore. You can’t just jump right into carrying stacks of 110lb patio stones and expect to come out unscathed. You need to warmup your legs, hips, and back before and ease into it. Do some dynamic stretches for your legs and glutes – for example, leg swings forward and backwards, bodyweight squats – and some range of motion exercises for your low back that will also warm up your core – a nice morning yoga routine will do. Since you’ll be hauling those heavy stones, doing some light upper body strengthening exercises will get your arms and shoulders ready to go.
Use proper body mechanics
Dear past Russ: lift with your legs. How many times have you told other people this? You should know better. Even though the human back is a remarkably strong and resilient structure, if you haven’t trained it to lift 110lb objects 100 or more times per day, use your legs to lift them. Squat down, and keep your spine in neutral. And BREATHE while you do it! Holding your breath while you lift heavy things is a great way to injure your back. Other things you did last weekend that you probably shouldn’t have: twist and bend with heavy things, reach far over a planter to pick up heavy things, get in a silent competition with your partner over who can lift the most patio stones at the same time.
Take regular breaks
When things start to get sore, it’s already past time for a break. Yes, past Russ, I know there’s so much to do. But if you hurt yourself this weekend, you won’t be able to do anything for the next 3 days, and it’s going to be super embarrassing explaining to dozens of patients why you can’t demonstrate bending forwards for them. The human body is amazing and can do so much – but it can only do the same thing for so long before it needs a break. In the case of heavy gardening work, every 30 minutes or BEFORE you start feeling any pain is the right answer. You can use your break to stretch out, rehydrate, and re-evaluate your garden and life choices. If time is really crunched, alternating lighter tasks with heavier tasks is a second-best option. For example, work on the overhead planters for 15 minutes, then go dig for 15 minutes.
Use the right tools and equipment
That rusty rake with only half a splintered handle that you found half buried that looks like it had been there since when the house was built in 1912? Sure, it’ll save you $40 on buying your own rake, but on top of digging splinters out of your palms for the next 3 days, you’ll also have to be working in a bent position because the handle is so short. Treat yourself, past Russ, invest in more ergonomic tools. Look for tools that are the appropriate size for your body. For your rake, this means making sure the handle is long enough to be able to work without bending forwards. Oh, and get a pair of gardening gloves. That old rake is gross.
Ask for help
This is a two parter. Firstly, ask for help when you need to lift heavy or bulky things. Yes, past Russ, we know you’re a strong and independent person. But you really would have enjoyed this last week more if you’d asked for someone to help you maneuver that planter box into place.
Secondly, past Russ, ask for help when you don’t listen to the first part of your own advice. A big shout-out to my colleague Mark Taylor who was able to work some magic with dry needling and joint mobilizations to significantly reduce my pain. He also suggested some stretches that I promise I am doing.
Finally, these closing words are to future Russ: this weekend after you’re done writing this blog post and you’re back out there trying to figure out how to protect your potato plants from the family of squirrels who we can’t seem to evict from the shed, please think back on these words. Warm up. Use proper mechanics. Be realistic with the expectations you place on your body. Take frequent breaks to stretch and re-hydrate. And ask for help with heavy tasks. If the worst still happens and you still wind up with an injury, you know who can help (thanks Mark!).
Russ was born in the UK before moving to the Calgary area as a kid. He spent way too many years in university, completing undergrad degrees focused on zoology, computer science, and psychology before finding his calling as a physio, graduating from the University of Alberta with his Master's in Physical Therapy. Since then he has continued his education with post-grad courses in vestibular physiotherapy, spinal manipulation, advanced dry needling, the GLA:D hip/knee osteoarthritis program, TMJ dysfunction, modern manual therapy, neurokinetic therapy, FMS, and more.
Russ takes a global approach to movement, taking the whole body into account to determine the source of pain and dysfunction. He uses manual therapy and modalities such as dry needling to improve pain and function in the short-term, and tailored exercises to make long-term changes.
On the weekends you can often find him climbing, camping, or paddling when it's warm, or playing guitar and watching bad movies with his cats Spike and Dru when it's cold.