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Gardening with back pain

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August garden
A garden that's not labour intensive...

Tips to lessen strain on bad backs

Back pain
Lessen the strain on your back when gardening

Gardening is a great hobby but it can also be torture for those of us who suffer from back pain.

It’s a good way of keeping fit if you do it properly, but it can also lead to injury if you plunge right into a long session without warming up or taking the necessary precautions.

Bending, over-reaching, lifting heavy objects and getting into awkward positions lead to trouble for all joints, not just the back.

As you bend forward, especially when you lift something, the spine’s natural curvature is stretched, straining the ligaments, muscles, and discs that separate the vertebrae, leading to pulled muscles, ligament damage, stiffness and trapped nerves, like sciatica.

Here are five top tips to keep you gardening without injury:

1. Warming up and back stretches: These can also be done during or after gardening. Do them slowly and without strain; if you feel pain, stop. Don’t let your muscles get cold. Take 15 to 20 minutes before you start gardening to stretch your muscles.

First, lie on your back on the floor. Pull your knees together to your chest. Keep your ankles together, and lower both knees gently to one side, touching the floor if possible, then the other.

Secondly, put your hands in the small of your back and arch your back backwards for a few seconds. This can also be done regularly while gardening (every 10 minutes or when you feel you’re stiffening up).

Weeds
Cover border soil with mulch to prevent weeds – unlike this

2. Time: Slow down! Do not garden for longer than 20-30 minutes at a time. Take regular rests and enjoy being outdoors. Also, mix heavier tasks with easier ones to give muscles time to recover.

3. Posture: Don’t slouch – practise good posture while gardening. Use your core muscles to support your back. Don’t stand and bend forward from the waist. If you need to be near the ground, use a padded reversible kneeler/seat with legs, so you can support yourself and keep the neck in a normal position and the back as straight as possible, and use the other hand for gardening.

4. Heavy lifting: get someone else to do it if possible. If you have to lift something, bend the knees, keeping your back straight, and grasp the object with both hands. Lift close to the body as you straighten your knees. You can also put one knee down and bend the other to avoid bending forward. Don’t use just one side of your body to lift or use tools. Transfer the shovel or other tool to the other arm every once in a while.

5. STOP: If pain progresses to aching, tingling, or numbness in the buttocks or legs, stop immediately. These can be signs of too much pressure on one or more of the lumbar discs, which may cause sciatic pain.


Designing a gardening for back pain sufferers

Chives, Heucheras and Campanula carpatica
Chives, Heucheras and Campanula carpatica combine to smother out weeds

How your garden is designed can also help your back. Here are four ideas to reduce time and bending;

1. Layout: Avoid leaving bare soil, which will need weeding. Use low-growing ground cover plants to suppress weeds. Mulch the surface with chipped bark, well-rotted manure or old grow bags. This helps to retain moisture, saving on watering.

Cut bending by using raised beds and keep them narrow so you can reach the centre. Avoid having a lawn – it’s labour intensive and hard work.

2. Tools: Use hand tools with long handles, such as forks and trowels. Pruners and loppers with a ratchet system make cutting easier and save putting pressure on the back and shoulders. Telescopic handles save pressure on the shoulders.

Put secateurs in a holster attached to your belt, saving you having to bend down to pick them up.

Use hoses on reels or an automated irrigation system in your garden, not heavy watering cans.

Ratchet loppers
Ratchet loppers with telescopic handles

3. Plants: Slow-growing shrubs are easier to maintain than annuals, herbaceous perennials and vegetables, but these can be grown in pots, where they are easier to reach.

Courgettes, potatoes and lettuce and varieties of baby vegetables will grow well in containers.

Choose fruit trees grown on dwarf rootstocks so you can pick the fruit at a comfortable height or train them as espaliers against a wall or as stepovers.

4. No-dig method: Spread manure, compost and fertiliser over the surface of a bed in late autumn. This gives the soil a chance to settle down before planting in spring and allow worms to take the organic material down into the soil for you.

Gardening charity Thrive has more tips for accessibility, visit www.thrive.org.uk, as does Arthritis Research UK www.arthritisresearchuk.org.

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