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Health Information | 10/05/2021

Seasonal Yard Work: Preventing Back Pain

By  Anisha Patel, PT
As the seasons change, many people here in New England are dusting off their rakes and snow shovels in anticipation of the cooler weather. While often an inevitable part of home maintenance, the repetitive bending and lifting involved in seasonal yard work can lead to muscle strain or can exacerbate chronic back pain.

Here are a few tips to keep you safe and injury-free while you spruce up your outdoor space.

Don’t forget to stretch

Like any physical activity, yard work can be demanding and strenuous for anyone, regardless of their fitness level. It’s best to lightly stretch your neck, back, and legs. When stretching, listen to your body and avoid doing movements that cause pain. This will only increase your chance of injury. A few helpful stretches include:

  • Neck Stretch – Tilt your head forward, then turn your head towards one side. Tuck your chin down to feel a stretch in the back of your neck. You can also add gentle pressure on the back of your head with your other hand for a deeper stretch. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds and repeat 3 times on either side.
  • Seated Low Back Stretch – Sitting in a chair with feet flat on the floor, slowly bend forward at the waist until you feel a gentle stretch in your low back. Hold for 20 seconds and then return to the start position. Repeat 3 times.
  • Seated Gluteal Stretch – Sit in a chair with feet flat on the floor, lift your right foot and place the ankle on the opposite thigh. Slowly pull the right knee up toward the opposite shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch in the right hip and buttock. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds and repeat 3 times on each leg.
  • Seated Hamstring StretchSitting in a chair with feet flat on the floor, extend one leg forward with the heel on the ground and foot flexed backward. Keeping the back straight, slowly bend forward from the waist until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of the thigh and knee. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds and repeat 3 times on each leg.

Maintain proper form

When lifting heavy items, you should maintain a healthy posture and good form to help avoid injury. Generally, lifting and bending should be done with your legs instead of your hips or back. For best posture, keep your head neutral, shoulders back, and core engaged. Gently bracing the belly button toward the spine will help engage the abdominal muscles. This is especially important as you bend to gather piles of leaves or a shovel full of heavy snow.

Good body mechanics are also important while lifting and moving snow. Always try to avoid twisting the body to throw snow. While it might be a little slower, it is best to step and pivot to turn the body instead of twisting. Also, rather than forcefully throwing the snow off your shovel, walk over to the snow pile area and gently drop the snow off the shovel. Those few extra steps you take will go a long way in preventing a strained back!

Work at your own pace

Raking or shoveling an entire yard can feel daunting when leaves and snow continue to fall and derail your progress. However, it’s important to listen to your body and work at a slow and steady pace, especially if you have a history of back pain. The faster you work, the less likely you are to maintain proper form and catch pain when it starts. It can be difficult to know your limitations, but being honest and realistic about what you can achieve in a single hour, afternoon, or day will help remind you to work carefully and comfortably.

Use the correct tools

The tools you use while raking and shoveling may impact how you feel after yard work, and using the right shovel or rake may even help prevent injury from occurring in the first place. For raking, make sure the handle is not too long or short for your height to avoid additional strain on your back and hips. You should be able to comfortably hold the end of the rake while gathering leaves and pulling them towards your body. There are also many ergonomically designed shovels that help ease back strain during pushing motions by taking the pressure and force off your lower back. However, shovels with straight handles are still usually best for lifting motions, so consider using both if you need to do things like clear snow off a car.

Raking and shoveling are unavoidable parts of colder months in New England, but it doesn’t need to be a dreaded chore. If you are unsure of your physical capabilities or want to learn more about avoiding injury, your Atrius Health provider can help determine a plan that works best for you.

About The Author

Anisha Patel, PT

Anisha Patel is a physical therapist who joined Atrius Health in 2016 and treats patients at our Watertown location. She attended the University of Ottawa and did her PT training at McGill University. Her clinical interests include sports injuries, orthopedics, and joint reconstruction and replacement. She is trained in Kinesio Taping® Method and is a Graston Technique Specialist. Growing up in a multicultural part of Montreal, in addition to English, Anisha speaks French and Gujarati.

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