Avoiding Gardening Pains

Spring is here and is the time when many gardeners resume work in their garden.  Not surprisingly it is also our busiest time of year at the clinic!  People come out of a winter of inactivity and, in their enthusiasm, often do too much.  There are a number of conditions often associated with gardening and here we will discuss how to avoid them.

Back pain:  Back pain during or after gardening is usually a result of  either sustained bending which overstretches the muscles and causes them to go in to spasm when you stand up again, or a disc injury which happens usually when too much force is applied through the disc for example when lifting or pulling.   To avoid these problems it is important to envisage that your spine works best when it is in an elongated position and the inward curve of the lumbar spine is maintained.   This means that when you lift a wheel barrow, do so using your hips and knees; when you dig, try to stand upright and lever the blade by transferring weight back and forth from one foot to another; and when weeding, try a kneeling posture using a kneeling pad for comfort.

Hand pain and repetitive strain injuries:  This time of year often involves a lot of dead heading, weeding and pruning.  The repetitive use of secateurs can aggravate pre-existing problems like osteoarthritis of the thumb and wrist joints.  It is worthwhile investing in a good pair of secateurs that are sharp, lightweight, have a comfortable ergonomic grip, and have a geared anvil action to minimise the force that you will need to apply (image 1).  Osteoarthritis may respond to joint supplements like Glucosamine or Chrondroitin, or topical application of anti-inflammatories like Voltarol / Ibuleve Gel. 

A common tendon problem, also caused by repetitive hand movements, is “Trigger Finger” which is caused by a lump developing on the tendon in the palm.   The lump gets stuck intermittently causing the affected finger to click and lock like a trigger, often painfully. Trigger finger can be avoided by regular gentle backwards stretching of the fingers. 

Repetitive strain injuries, such as “Tennis Elbow”, are common in hedge trimming because of sustained wielding of a heavy hedge trimmer.   To avoid this problem try to hold the trimmer as close to your body as you can, and regularly rest to stretch your forearm.  Stretching can be done by straightening your elbow fully, and bending your wrist until a stretch is felt in the forearm muscle (image 2).

Shoulder pain:  Many people suffer from shoulder pain which is commonly due to Impingement Syndrome or Rotator Cuff Tears.  Shoulder Impingement is a condition where the top of the humerus (arm bone) painfully bumps in to the acromium (boney cap on top of the shoulder).  One of the most aggravating movements for developing this is sustained reaching up – like pruning at height.  This can be avoided by using loppers or long reach pruners.   

Rotator Cuff Tears are usually a result of too much pulling and wrenching.  A typical movement which uses the rotator cuff is the pull starter for a petrol lawn mower, so when performing this movement try to use your knees and body.

Knee and hip pain: One of the reasons knees and hips are prone to pain and injury is because working in the garden requires so much squatting, kneeling, and bending.  Importantly you should try to use your knees in a parallel position so that they are bending in the same direction, and by using a kneeling pad when kneeling.