Gardener’s Grumble – What You Should Know Before You Dig
April 26, 2016
With the fine weather now with us, you may be taking a spell in the garden, digging, pruning, mowing, mulching or perhaps putting in that pergola to add a bit of structure. And your joint or muscles may be telling you about it! For those of us who don’t have teams of gardeners maintaining our pristine grounds, we’re spending hours pushing, pulling, bending, twisting and lifting after a winter of relative rest. This means that your gardening muscles haven’t been flexed for a while and you’re ripe for a gardening injury. Luckily, there are ways to minimize the risk if you take the right steps to prevent gardening injuries.
You’re in it for the long haul – prevent gardening injuries now!
To begin with, think of gardening as a sport. You wouldn’t go for a run without training and properly warming up and cooling down (more on that subject next time). If you run a hundred yard dash, you might well go all out sprinting but if you’re running a marathon, you’re going to pace yourself. Gardening is more like the marathon – in order to prevent gardening injuries pace yourself and you’ll go the distance, enjoying the fruits of your labor well into the Autumn and Winter months. Break up big jobs into smaller tasks and don’t work until the point of exhaustion. You’ll find you can do more and more as the season goes on and you’ve trained your gardening muscles with progressively more difficult tasks.
Of course, when it comes to certain perennial weeds the race analogy continues as letting them run rampant creates a nearly insurmountable problem. Using weed suppressing ground covers can slow down the pace of vigorous weeds and let you focus your attention on the most pressing jobs. Another alternative, particularly for less able-bodied people is to grow in raised beds and/or containers. This allows for better weed control with less bending over, lower water requirement and the ability to have a clean slate to work with. Even small spaces can be productive with container plants – fruits, vegetables, salad and even fruit trees all can be grown well in containers and they can be moved indoors in the winter if freezing temperatures are an issue.
When digging, consider the choice of tools. A small spade rather than a larger shovel will mean a lighter load on your back, thus helping you to prevent gardening injuries. Hard soil is more easily broken up with a digging fork and a wheel barrow for moving loads works a treat. One of the surest ways to do your back in is to lift from a bent and twisted position. If you are lifting from a low level, bend your knees if possible and keep the weight front and center, as close to your own center of gravity between your feet as possible.
Speaking of knees, do look after them as you may be in need of them for some time (to paraphrase Mark Twain). Invest in a good pair of knee pads or a kneeling cushion and avoid squatting for long periods. Likewise, a low gardening stool can take the strain off of your knees, hips and back, keep you going for longer and help prevent gardening injuries.
Many upper extremity problems (wrist, elbow and shoulder) result from prolonged and repetitive movements, particularly when performed above the height of the shoulders, reaching up. Pruning and trimming the hedge comes to mind. Make sure you have the right tools for the job – hand secateurs for smaller jobs and loppers for larger and try to change position frequently. A small step ladder for these types of tasks will come in handy and keep you in the game for another day.
Most importantly, listen to your body. If you go to the point of pain, you’ve probably already done too much and will be paying for it over the next 24 to 48 hours. Delayed onset muscles soreness, resulting from muscle exertion normally peaks two days after the activity so if you have a mysterious pain, think back to your activities two days ago. Stay well hydrated to keep your muscles and joints well lubricated, especially in hotter weather and use ice on painful areas after activity to minimize pain and swelling.
Remember to stretch the muscles you’ve been using after gardening and if possible take a five-minute walk as part of your cool down (a short walk makes for a good warm-up as well). If you do have areas of pain after gardening, this shouldn’t last more than a few days. If you experience persistent pain then an injury could be present and in that case, seek medical attention. Remember to treat gardening like a sport and your body like the gardening athlete you are and you’ll have a winning season with prize tomatoes and flower beds to reward your efforts.
Joshua Wies lives in Mount Washington and has been a physical therapist specializing in treating muscle and joint problems for 24 years. Mount Washington Physical Therapy is located in the heart of the village and is open Monday through Friday. Book online at www.mountwashingtonphysicaltherapy.com or call 410-542-6878 for an appointment.