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Gardening And Back Pain - How To Prevent And Manage It

March 11, 2022

After a long, lazy winter, it’s now time for lifting pots and compost bags, chucking leaves, branches, digging and raking the ground. Suddenly, something so idyllic and healthy is causing your back to hurt, stiffen or, worse, ‘lock up’. Is it that gardening may not be so good for our backs after all? Or are we just doing it all wrong? Read along and we’ll answer your questions.

First Things First: The Blue Zones

Let’s get it straight, gardening is not bad for your back. Quite the opposite, actually: research done in the world’s Blue Zones (areas of the world with the highest longevity and health like Sardinia and Okinawa) shows that moderate daily exercise, of which gardening and walking are the preferred activities, is an essential element of long-term health. On the plus side, if your garden also grows beautiful veggies, you’ll have organic, local and beloved food on your table every day! Another super healthy aspect to it. 

So, why does my back hurt:

Winter deconditioning: our body does not respond well to a sudden change in routine. The main reason for our backs to stiffen and hurt is that, after a long winter of desk-work, movies and occasional workouts, our backs are suddenly exposed to hours of pulling, lifting and twisting, all motions that our bodies had long “forgotten” about.

Too much too soon: we’ve all been there. We tell ourselves we’re just going to give our garden a general tidying but a few hours later we’re still there, cutting, raking, digging and so on. We don’t blame you, it feels so good! 

Lack of warm-up prior to the activity: you may be rightfully asking yourself how to warm up before gardening. There is no magic warm-up sequence (see our tips later in the blog), the basic idea is that our muscles and joints should not approach gardening from ‘cold’ - ie. from the sofa straight to the garden.

Cold weather: cold weather is commonly thought to cause your muscles to tense up, reducing blood flow and making it more likely for your nerves to send ‘danger’ signals to the brain (more on this in the next paragraph). Science is not 100% definite on this point, despite some studies suggesting the above; thus, do what feels right to you. We suggest starting at a comfortable temperature and removing layers as you warm up.  

Is my back damaged

Let us reassure you, most of the patients who develop back pain from gardening have not severely damaged or strained their backs. It can be quite the opposite, the pain you feel or the sudden locking of your back is often a protective mechanism carried out by your nervous system.

Let us explain further… 

as you enter your garden in the crisp winter cold and start getting into all of those gardening tasks involving lifting, twisting, bending and kneeling, the nerves in your back will be sending the information of all these activities up to your brain. Remember, one of the brain’s chief functions is to protect you from anything that may cause you harm.  

The brain receives this information and goes: ‘wow, it’s been a while since we’ve done movements like this’, ‘there is a lot of pressure on our back muscles and ligaments’, ‘the temperature is really cold’ and so on… now, when enough of these signals are received by the brain to reach a threshold for it to worry, ‘protection mode’ may be started. And what better way to protect you than stopping you from doing what you’re doing? 

This is how the brain protects you:

Pain: pain is incredibly effective at making us aware that something is not ‘right’. People who do not feel any pain (because of genetic disorders or nerve conditions) have a very hard life as they’re totally unaware of injuring themselves all the time.

Muscle stiffness: this is how the body creates a ‘solid protective shell’ and stops you from doing anything more. Your back muscles may need a few days to go loose again, depending on how intense the protection mode is.

Worry: worrying is a natural part of being in pain. It is fine to worry when in pain, indeed pain encourages us to take action and alleviate it. However, too much worry can work as a backfire, further increasing the protective response when there is no need for it.

Look out for

However, you want to look out for signs that you may have more than just strained your back. Beware of pins and needles travelling to your feet, numbness in your legs or around your genitals, changes in bowel and bladder function or a general feeling of drowsiness and confusion. This may follow very heavy lifting or a fall but thankfully it is rare. If this is the case, you should seek quick professional advice.

So why is my back locked?

We often use expressions like: “my back is locked” or “my back went”, and these describe the feeling well but don’t really reflect the underlying cause. For most cases, we should actually say that our nervous system is in protective mode, and although this doesn’t sound quite as dramatic, it is much closer to the truth rather than any feeling of tearing, ripping or breaking of our spine. 

This shift in mentality is ever so important so that rather than being scared, frustrated and overly cautious, you can start making purposeful steps towards recovery at an early stage. Read on to see what to do.

Take-home messages

The good news is that in most cases you may have a locked back and little damage to your joints, muscles or ligaments. Your nerves and brain were great at preventing damage, hurray! 

If there was some degree of damage, ie. muscular strain, ligamentous sprain or disc damage, this will recover in a matter of weeks, depending on what has been. Generally speaking, muscles should recover quicker than discs or ligaments do. 

Be aware of signs that may indicate real damage: pin and needles or numbness, bowel and bladder changes and so on (read more in the Look Out For section).

Top tips to prevent it:

Stay conditioned throughout winter: as we wrote at the start of the article, the healthiest people seem to be the ones doing daily moderate exercise. This doesn’t mean you should be stressing about running marathons or doing daily hiit workouts. Rather, frequent walks, DIY and gardening are great ways to do this.

Vary your posture while gardening: don’t repeat the same movement and posture over again. You can do the same job bending your back, kneeling, sitting cross-legged or on your knees. Vary!

Utilise various muscle groups: there is no right way of doing gardening, but try using as many muscles as you can: engaging your gluteals (ie. make your buttock strong), your back muscles (pulling shoulder blades back), bending knees when lifting things, engaging your core and so on. 

Warm-up beforehand: move your body fluidly (ie. dancing or rotating hips and back) and engage the muscles you’re about to use (ie. squat, bends, push-ups).

What to do if my back is locked (aka. my nervous system is in protective mode)

Gentle and frequent movement: gentle movement allows us to maintain good blood and lymphatic flow and downregulates the protective nervous system. Moving regularly at a low intensity is key.

Do not overly worry: over-worrying can increase the protective response of our nervous system and will not get us moving with confidence from early on, as we should.

Change posture frequently: whether you’re in bed, on a chair or on the sofa, when resting, make sure you’re varying your posture so that different areas of your body receive your weight in turns.

Take painkillers early on: it’s ok to take painkillers in the acute phase of back pain. On the plus side, these can numb the pain and allow you to move better from the start. However, don’t rely on them in the long term.

Apply heat: hot water bottles, baths or heat patches can provide effective short-term relief. Use as much as desired.

Osteopathy for acute back pain

In case you were wondering, osteopathy is an amazing option to manage your acute back pain. Firstly, it provides you with a clear idea of what the problem is, giving you reassurance and peace of mind. Secondly, it effectively works at relaxing your overprotective muscles and nervous system, allowing you to move more confidently and with less pain. Thirdly, it will you will a clear plan of the steps, exercises and tricks to take towards recovery.

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