Many people take extreme pleasure from gardening. Pottering around the garden, making it look beautiful so that you can enjoy the fruits of your labour and relax surrounded by nature may be one of your favourite pastimes. But regular weeding, digging, planting, hedge trimming and mowing can cause lower back pain. This pain can become so severe that it prevents you from getting out into the garden and doing what you love.
In this article, King Edward VII Hospital’s Physiotherapy Clinical Lead Ashleigh Jordan gives her top tips for reducing the risk of back pain associated with gardening. They also discuss how to manage back pain that may have been caused by working in the garden.
The benefits of gardening
Gardening has multiple benefits to both mental and physical health. Although it’s not an overly physical, aerobic ‘sport’ like running, gardening still burns calories and fat and works the muscles. A report by the King’s Fund found that regular gardening can “reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity”. It can also improve balance, helping to prevent trips and falls in older people.
The same report revealed that gardening can also help to reduce feelings of depression, loneliness, anxiety and stress. Other studies have found that gardening helps to improve mood and low self-esteem. This is particularly true in an allotment environment where gardeners are surrounded by like-minded, local people.
Connecting with nature and having an oasis of calm in your back garden where you can relax when the weather is good is also great for relieving stress. A neat, tidy garden full of flowers is also a perfect place for entertaining or eating outside which brings immense joy. As does eating the fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in your own veg patch or allotment space.
There’s little doubt that gardening is good for physical and mental health. But it can also lead to aches and pains, especially in the lower back.
Common causes of back pain and injury whilst gardening
Using lawnmowers and other motorised tools such as hedge trimmers come with obvious risks of injury. Pulling up thorny weeds without gloves and using ladders can also cause harm if you’re not careful.
But back pain is often deemed less of a ‘risk’ and is therefore often less well prepared for. Gardening involves a lot of bending over, twisting and manoeuvring in small, awkward spaces such as under bushes. It can also mean lifting heavy objects such as wheelbarrows and bags of topsoil.
These tasks can all put pressure on the lower back and cause pain and inflammation. [HdG1]
Back pain caused by gardening doesn’t usually occur until later on in the day, or even the day after gardening. It can cause a constant niggling pain or stiffness, or it can cause severe discomfort on moving with shooting pains through the buttocks and down the legs.
Top tips for preventing, reducing and managing back pain
But there are steps you can take that will reduce the amount of back pain you suffer after gardening:
Warm up thoroughly before beginning work on your garden. You might think that because gardening isn’t a sport, you don’t need to warm up. But bending, digging, pulling and lifting all require the muscles to be in full working order. The warmer the muscles, the less likely they’ll be to suffer injury. Try doing some gentle stretches such as these recommended by the NHS just before you start gardening, and every hour or so whilst gardening if you can. They’ll also help to ease any lower back pain you may have after gardening (see your doctor before exercising if your back pain is severe).
Have a plan that spreads the harder jobs out over time. Don’t aim to get all of the harder jobs such as digging and pruning the tops of bushes and trees all in one day. Mixing up the jobs also will put less strain on one particular area of the back. You could try 20 minutes of kneeling down to weed followed by 20 minutes of cutting the grass and then 20 minutes of hedge trimming. Use a timer to make sure you don’t go over.
Learn to lift properly. Proper lifting is essential for protecting the back in any environment. Gardening often involves lifting heavy pots or bags of soil or sand, or machinery from the shed or up a ladder. Safe lifting involves careful planning, not rushing, keeping the feet stable and crucially, bending from the knees rather than the back. These safe lifting tips will help to minimise your injury risk.
Always push your lawnmower properly. Push forwards in a straight line with your arms extended, and refrain from looking over to your side. Always keep the lead of an electric mower behind you. Putting it over one shoulder can help. If possible, upgrade to a lighter weight electric lawnmower rather than a heavier petrol mower or a difficult to push non-motorised one.
Match your tools to your job. If you’re kneeling down to do some weeding, use short handled, lightweight tools and keep them all close by so that you don’t have to overstretch to reach them. Long handled tools are ideal for reaching higher up branches without using a ladder but take care not to lose your balance when looking upwards. Keep your tools sharp and free from rust too, as this will make each job much easier and less time consuming.
Use a knee pad. A knee pad will make weeding and digging with a small trowel easier on your knees. This in turn will make you more comfortable all over, putting less pressure on your back. A knee pad with a frame around it will assist you in getting up and down which will help your back, too.
Keep up to date with garden gadgets. There are lots of gadgets on the market that can make simple gardening jobs easier. They range from long handled, clawed weeding tools that mean you don’t have to bend over, to rigid hose extenders that can help you water hanging baskets.
Aim for raised planters. This is a long term solution, but having raised planters and beds for both plants and vegetables means less bending over to tend to them in the long run. You could hire someone with a mechanical digger to help create them in the first place.
Take rest breaks. Taking regular breaks will give your spine a chance to stretch back the other way after being bent over. This will help to reduce the compression experienced by the spine when bending and lifting and can mean that you have less chance of experiencing a back injury.
Use hot or cold compresses. If you do experience back pain, or to help prevent it after a day working in the garden, hot or cold pads can help. Whether you use hot or cold compresses is up to your personal preference as both help to ease tired muscles and inflammation. Both can be bought from pharmacies but a packet of frozen peas or a hot water bottle works just as well.
Take ibuprofen. If your back pain feels worse, try taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkiller such as ibuprofen if you’re able. If you have a medical condition or you take other medications and you’re unsure if you can take ibuprofen, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking them.
Always stop gardening immediately if your lower back pain, or any other pain, becomes severe. You could put yourself at risk of further damage if you continue.
When to see a doctor for help
These tips will help you to enjoy gardening free from pain. But if you do experience back pain, rest, hot or cold compresses and pain killers can help. Sometimes, lower back pain requires further treatment, physiotherapy or even surgery.
- If your back pain means you’re unable to move or do the things you enjoy, make an appointment to see your GP. If you don’t have a GP, the King Edward VII’s Hospital same day private GP service can help.
- We’re also fully equipped with a state of the art physiotherapy department and orthopaedic surgery unit if you require further treatment to get you back on your feet.