Mulch, gravel, soil, mounds of wet leaves – what do they have in common? Moving these materials or substances often involves using a shovel or a garden rake. Whether you are shovelling soil to plant a shrub, mulch to enrich the garden, gravel to lay a base for the chicken coop, or clearing the garden of the autumn leaves, shovelling and raking is demanding work.
It is functional activity that requires a moderate to high level of cardiovascular and muscular endurance. And it involves repetitive bending, pushing, lifting, and twisting motions while balancing heavy potentially loads. The upside is that shovellingshoveling and raking can be an intense workout. The downside is that it predisposes you to lower back injury.
The pitfalls of shovelling and the garden rake
Recently, my beautiful red Australian Kelpie named “Bowie” passed away suddenly (we suspect a poisonous snake bite). A proper burial followed, which required digging her grave in our back paddock. The experience reminded me of muscle fatigue, lower back strain, and vertebral disc damage that commonly originates from shovelling. As a practising physiotherapist, I often treat patients for lower back pain as a result of shovelling or raking in the garden. The causes of Common physical injuries in the garden include:
- bending forward from the lumbar spine (low back) and loading the lumbar vertebral discs
- moving heavy loads – especially loads that are compact and dense such as wet soil,
- compost, and gravel
- twisting while bending
- repetitive twisting
Collectively, these movements — particularly when done repetitively – create a perfect scenario for lower back injury. The injury frequently involves overburdened discs of the lumbar spine. This causes swelling of the irritated disc and adjacent soft tissues (discogenic pain). Swelling leads to constant lower back pain, that may be aggravated with sitting and bending forward.
Following a back injury, it is important to seek medical and health advice. An appropriate assessment, treatment, and advice from a physiotherapist can provide early relief from pain. However, preventing an injury, as well as the inconvenience and accompanying expense is preferred.
The good news is that there are several preventative actions you can take to protect against lower back injury.
5 things you can do to prevent orreduce the risk of lower back injury in the garden?
- Gain and maintain strong core muscles and lower limb muscle. Strong and stable abdominal and back muscles are protective of the lumbar discs and other soft tissues supporting the spine. Strong leg muscles will allow you to bend at the knees and load your legs rather than your lower back when lifting or shovelling. See optimal shovelling technique guidelines below.
- Improve flexibility around the hips, lower back and thoracic spine (chest). It is important to allow free movement and an adequate range of motion of the joints and muscles adjacent to the lumbar spine.
- Avoid repeated bending at your back and undertake smaller bouts of activity with frequent rests. The rests can involve tasks that are very different in movement patterns.
- Avoid sustained periods in one position especially bending forward.
- Ensure an optimal shovelling technique.
- Bend from the hips and knees rather than the lower back. Keeping your lower back straight to maintain a neutral lumbar spine to reduce the load on the discs and soft tissues.
- Brace your abdominal muscles as you shovel. This will stabilize your core and spine and protect against overloading the vertebral discs.
Our exercise physiologist demonstrates the following exercises in this video:
- Squats – will help improve the strength of the legs and help your ability to squat rather than bend at the lower back.
- Stretching the buttock muscles – will help reduce stiffness around the hips and lower back.