Gardening and Yardwork Safety

It wouldn't be surprising if you scoffed a little when you read the title to this article. However, gardening and yard work injuries are very common reasons for patients presenting to my office in acute pain. Seemingly simple activities can lead to anything from mild to significant injuries if you are not careful about using proper body mechanics and general common sense.


Some of the more common injury causing activities include:


·         Lifting pots, bags of dirt, landscaping rocks/ pavers

·         Digging, shoveling

·         Pull starting a lawnmower or chainsaw

·         Rototilling (particularly with the old front tine tillers)

·         Weeding


Often times, injuries result not necessarily from the activity being a bad thing to do, but from improper technique or just doing too much all at once. With a little preparation, thought, and attentiveness, you can decrease the risk of injury.


Proper lifting technique


Proper lifting technique is critical to avoiding a low back injury during any lifting activity, whether it is in the garden, at the grocery store, or in the gym. A common misunderstanding is that people have learned to “lift with their legs” and “keep the low back straight.” When lifting, bending at the knees and lifting with the legs is appropriate. However, during the lift the low back should remain arched, not straight, to avoid injury.


The low back naturally has a front to back curve called a lordosis, which protects the intervertebral discs (the shock absorbers for your spine) from injury.  Particularly in the low back, the discs are normally somewhat wedge-shaped, with the front being taller than the back part of the disc. This helps encourage the normal lordotic curve in the low back.


If the low back is straightened and put under a load, i.e. – lifting, then excess pressure is put on the back portion of the discs. This excessive posterior disc pressure leads to a higher likelihood of a low back and/ or disc injury.  In fact, the most common way of injuring a disc in the low back is to be in a bent forward and twisted position, then trying to lift something.


Look at Olympic power lifters as an example. When they pull a heavy weight from the floor, they always maintain a strong curve in the low back by actively arching their low back and sticking out their rear. While most of us are not Olympic power lifters, the principle is the same.


Proper lifting technique is:

·         Bend from the knees

·         Actively maintain a good natural arch in the low back

·         Lift with the legs as much as possible


Work into New Activities Gradually


Like I said earlier, a large number of injuries I see fall into this category. People get hurt by too much of a new activity, all at once, without enough preparation.  Most of the time these injuries end up being minor inconveniences that resolve relatively quickly. However, over the years I have also seen a number of cases that were quite severe and even several disc injuries that ended in surgeries which could have been avoided with a little common sense.


So, when you hit the garden with the rototiller, the shovel, a hoe, or the flat of tomato plants, listen to your body.  Work into the new activities slowly. Set out timelines that are modifiable to how your body tolerates the activity. If you have a lot to do, try setting up a loose schedule of trying to make multiple, shorter, 15-45 minute jobs throughout the week, rather than a 6 hour session all at once from the get go. I’m not saying you can’t go out and have the 12 hour gardening bonanza when your body is ready for it. If it is, go for it!


With some common sense and good technique, you can have fun, do what you want, and reduce your risk of injury. Have a bountiful growing season and enjoy your time outdoors!


Dr. Neely




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South Sound Pain Relief Clinic

2411 Pacific Ave SE, Flr 1

Olympia, WA 98501

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