The perils of planting - how to avoid gardening injuries
Russell Gunner, C.A.T. (C)

It's that time of year again - gardeners are invading the big box stores. But don't let their carts loaded with plants and gardening goodies intimidate you. There's a good chance the not-so-careful gardener could end up on the injured list.
All that lifting and digging can put a lot of stress on your back and other muscles. The morning after an all-day planting session will surely reveal that you have muscles you never knew you had. But there are a few simple steps you can take to make sure your spring gardening career isn't sidelined by injury.

First and foremost, gardeners must understand how to lift those large bags of soil and other objects. There are basically four rules to keep in mind whenever you lift something of any size.

1. Bending with your knees and not your back is still the most common recommendation people ignore. This alone can save you hundreds of dollars at a rehabilitation clinic. Whenever you lift something of any size, you must always keep your back as straight as possible. This will allow the muscles around the core to properly contract and protect the necessary discs and joints of your back. Your knees are the strongest when they are bent to 90 degrees. Therefore, whenever you lift that bag of soil, bend down halfway with your knees and lift with your quadriceps.

2. Contract your abdominal muscles before you lift the object. This is exactly as it sounds. Before you lift that wheelbarrow or bag of gravel, tighten up your abdominal muscles first, then lift. This helps stabilize your core and back, and prevents the facet joints in your lumbar spine from taking the brunt of the lift.

3. Keep your nose between your toes. This is essentially the same thing as saying "don't twist." Many people have a tendency to keep their feet locked in position when moving or throwing something. You should always keep them moving, and use the body as a whole. Therefore, always keep your feet moving to whichever way you are facing, (nose facing whichever way your toes are facing).

4. Keep the weight as close to you as possible. If you hold anything at arm's length in front of you, it will place up to 10 times the stress on your back muscles. This is because it changes your centre of gravity when any weight (your arms) is moved forward of your midline. Therefore, when carrying the weight or lifting it, keep it very close to your stomach so as not to change your centre of gravity, and put undue stress on your lumbar spine muscles.

In general, remember that gardening is a physical activity. Many Canadians are overweight and out of shape, and don't think of gardening as an activity that requires some training or preparation.

"Most people do not take gardening seriously; it is an intense sport like skiing, hiking or sailing. Most people would not dream of spending six hours of skiing or golfing their first time out for the season...yet that is exactly what people do in their gardens.....they get so inspired in the spring that they overdo things," says Jan Bednarczyk of North Shore Home Physiotherapy Services in Vancouver.

Here are some more basic tips to avoid injury:

Do a simple warm-up. Start by taking a five-minute walk or easy raking to get your cardiovascular system going. I would also suggest some easy back and leg stretches to help limber them up.

Use proper-fitting and ergonomic tools. Use long-handled tools to decrease stress on your back, especially with weed extractors. A potting stool or bench is also helpful to avoid bending over too much. If you will be on your knees for extended periods, a good pair of knee pads can relieve some of the pressure on your knees. Also, a good pair of gardening gloves can help you avoid the blisters and dryness associated with pruning and dirt.

Be aware of the sun. We all know that too much sun exposure can be problematic, so protect yourself with a good, wide-brimmed hat and the properly prescribed sunscreen. Avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids. You may want to save that cold beer until you are done though, and stick with the water for now.

Too much, too soon. Try not to get it all done in one day. Take frequent breaks, and give your body a rest when it needs it. Over-working can lead to injury.

A final note:

Not all gardening is done on the ground or in the dirt. Very often we have to prune or trim those trees that hang over the garden and cut off necessary sunlight. Here are some basic tips for this:

Get as close to the trees or bush as possible. This takes us back to rule four for lifting - keep it close.
Don't let yourself get into awkward foot positioning and cause yourself to slip or fall.
Make sure the sizes of the grip on your tools are matched to your hand size. This will place less stress on your forearm muscles.
Hold the tools with a light, loose grip and not too tight.

Now that we understand some basic tips on how to avoid those injuries, let's see if we can enjoy those bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) in the backyard without feeling any pain.

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