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10 ways to avoid injury when you are gardening

Gardening is not considered a risky activity. However, when the weather improves, offering the chance to spend a few hours in the garden for the first time in months, there can be a deluge of sore backs and elbows, says physiotherapist Jenny Branigan

Basic gardening activities like weeding, digging and watering involve movement, effort and energy
Basic gardening activities like weeding, digging and watering involve movement, effort and energy
Basic gardening activities like weeding, digging and watering involve movement, effort and energy
Basic gardening activities like weeding, digging and watering involve movement, effort and energy

Basic gardening activities like weeding, digging and watering involve movement, effort and energy. Too many hours spent enthusiastically bent over while seeding and weeding can lead to back pain - as can hauling around large buckets of water, heavy hoses or laden wheelbarrows.

The most common gardening-related injuries we see include neck and low back pain, shoulder tendinopathy, lateral epicondyle pain (tennis elbow), and carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist. These are mostly overuse injuries that tend to occur after long hours of unfamiliar work in awkward positions. Here are some tips to help prevent injury while you're enjoying gardening.

1. Plan ahead and set realistic goals

Don't expect to get all your gardening done on the first sunny day of spring. Set realistic goals and don't rush to complete a big project in a short period of time.

Plan for what you want to accomplish and then set certain tasks for different days. Be cautious on the first day back to gardening of the year and be careful not to overwork yourself.

2. Prepare your body for gardening

While preparing our bodies for any activity is excellent advice, many of us don't adhere to it.

Gardening is an active hobby and can be strenuous, so it is worth taking a few minutes to get yourself ready for action.

A simple walk around the garden will improve circulation and warm your muscles, and adding easy stretches like shoulder circles, neck and back movements in all directions and marching on the spot will limber up your muscles.

3. Take breaks every 15 minutes

Your spine is designed to move in all directions, but the forward-bending nature of many tasks in the garden means that you may spend much more time in this position than any other.

After every 10-15 minutes of time spent bending forwards working, you should stand up and bend backwards and then side-bend your spine. Ease your body by taking a regular movement break to keep your spine supple and minimise stiffness. Walking around the garden every 15 minutes will also achieve this.

Preparing your lawn for mowing can take time. If there is significant tidying and bending over to pick up stones and toys to be done, take a movement break after the clear-up. Treat the clear-up and the mowing as two separate jobs.

4. Vary your jobs to avoid RSI

It's easy to lose track of time in the garden. Set a timer on your phone and rotate your tasks every 15 minutes to avoid repetitive movements. Plan what needs to be done, such as pruning, raking, digging, or pulling weeds, and ensure that you change between each job and body position regularly.

Consider your body position with each task. When pruning, have the plant in front of you, rather than to the side or at an angle, and avoid reaching. The closer you are to something, the less stress you are placing on your body.

5. Be careful when you are lifting

Lifting items maintains our strength, but we need to ensure we are strong enough to safely lift. If a load is very heavy, eg carrying large buckets of water or bags of stones, you need to plan how you will manage it. You could consider lightening the load by making more than one trip or recruiting someone else to help you lift or pull, or even using a wheelbarrow to move it safely. When lifting, remember to bend at the knees, and harness the power of your stronger thigh muscles to push and pull heavy objects. Avoid heavy lifting while in a forward-bent position.

6. Prolonged gripping can cause strain

Avoid long periods of gripping tightly on hedge clippers or using an axe. The prolonged gripping action can increase the pressure on the tendons at the elbow and cause severe pain and weakness. This is commonly known as tennis elbow, which is a degenerative process in the tendon from overuse, rather than an inflammation, and can take many months to heal.

Choose hand tools that fit your grip and avoid over-gripping a very small handle.

7. Check the tools you need

It is worth considering your past injury history and using the correct tools to prevent aggravating the symptoms again.

Use long-handled tools to avoid needlessly working in a bent position and use slow, deliberate movements instead of rough or jerky ones. If your equipment is too stiff, you may strain yourself trying to use it. Instead of pulling weeds with your hands, use an old dinner fork to grab and loosen weed roots, making them easier to pull out.

Tools with smaller blades that weigh less will help you avoid straining your muscles. If you have a history of elbow pain, watch the grip size of your hand tools and how long you work for.

Use a padded kneeler to prevent pain and swelling in the front of the knee (pre-patellar bursitis).

8. Build strength to prevent injuries

If you suffer with sore hands and forearms after a gardening session, strengthen those muscles by using hand grips or by regularly squeezing a rubber stress ball. This will help prevent aches or injuries and keep your hands and arms strong throughout the gardening season.

If you suffer a flare-up of back pain or indeed any pain when you garden, see your local chartered physiotherapist for advice on how to build up your strength and endurance to allow you to garden without injury.

9. Check your lawnmowers

You may need to consider a motored mower rather than a manual one if you have a history of back pain. The motored ones glide easier along the grass, putting less pressure on your back and arms. The longer the grass is, the more you will need to push a manual mower, so better to use a motored mower.

Watch the vigorous pull start on a manual mower - this can cause rotational back injury as well as straining your shoulder if you do it cold, so make sure you warm up first.

10. How to rest when you're finished

When you have finished gardening, don't collapse into a soft and low sofa. Instead, walk around the block or sit on a dining room style chair to rest. When your body is in the same position for a long time, eg. forward-bent, the soft tissue structures (muscles and ligaments) gradually lengthen and temporarily weaken. If you sit immediately without letting them gradually return to normal, you may find it hard to get up from the sofa.

This is also relevant if you try to lift something heavy after a long period of time spent bent over. Your ligaments need a few minutes to return to their usual length and strength, to be able to give the proper support needed to lift.

Gardening is a great physical activity and a meaningful one as it keeps us strong and happy. It is worth being proactive and taking a few minutes to plan when gardening, to reduce your risk of getting injured doing an activity that you love.

Jenny Branigan is a chartered physiotherapist

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