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Ease the pain of guerilla gardening with stretches and proper tools

05/25/2012 03:35 EDT | Updated 07/25/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Lugging bags of potting soil, turning compacted flower beds and pulling hard-to-reach weeds offer plenty of exercise, but when these tasks are done incorrectly they can result in stiff and sore joints along with muscle, neck and back pain.

Chiropractors and other specialists who treat people for aches and pains often see a surge in business after the weekends from people who try to get all their gardening done in one go.

"I equate it to the weekend warriors because as soon as you get the nice weather, you see all the flowers everywhere and you go, 'I'm, just going to do it all at once,' which is not the right way to go about it," said Dr. Natalia Lishchyna, president of the Ontario Chiropractic Association.

"Within about a three-week period, from Victoria Day until about mid-June when everybody is getting all their flowers in and gardening done, that's typically the time where you hear about their aches and pains," said Lishchyna, who runs a chiropractic clinic in Oakville, west of Toronto.

"We do want people to consider it a form of exercise and it's a great form of exercise, but you've got to pace yourself to prevent the stiffness, soreness and injuries that can typically happen when you're not doing it right."

The association's public awareness program, called "plant and rake without the ache," was launched because chiropractors were seeing so many patients with aching backs from gardening.

The most common injuries are back strains from lifting and reaching and repetitive strain injuries in the wrist and in the elbow because of the planting action.

Before starting yard work, Lishchyna recommends warming up.

"I like to walk around the neighbourhood for 10 to 15 minutes, a brisk walk around. I get inspired by the flowers, the trees and the bushes so that gives me a nice warmup and then I'll come home and do the stretches," she said in a telephone interview.

The legs, back, shoulders, arms and wrists are used the most in gardening. Exercises with diagrams can be found on the Ontario Chiropractic Association website, chiropractic.on.ca.

Stretch legs, including thigh muscles and hamstrings.

"Those are the muscles used quite heavily with lifting if you're doing it right," she said.

Side stretches will benefit the back. "You can also sit in a chair and bend forward at the hips, pulling your head down and resting your hands on the floor."

To stretch the arms and shoulders, "hug yourself snugly and gently rotate at the waist and then stretch as far as you can go."

Rotate shoulders forward and back. Flexion and extension stretches benefit wrists.

"As people are doing yard work we want them to take breaks, reasonably three an hour," Lishchyna recommended. "Just to get up to stretch, go get a drink, sit down for a moment, enjoy what you've done so far and then get back to your work,"

Alternating tasks is also important. "Till a bit of soil, then start with planting, then come back to the turning over of the soil. It's that much easier. If you've got a big garden and you try to turn over all the soil at once, this is where you really start to strain yourself."

Lifting properly is key.

"You always want to stand close to your load, your feet apart shoulder width, you want to keep your back straight and then you squat down when you're actually lifting so you don't bend with your back because your leg muscles have a greater strength than your back muscles. Carry your load close to your body. Try to avoid the twisting action.

"I typically use my thing of 'keep your nose between your toes' whether you're lifting snow or lifting dirt. That way the twisting action doesn't cause the disc injuries," she said.

Divide a heavy load into smaller portions, get some help or use a lightweight wheelbarrow.

Minimize bending with a long-handled tool that is the correct length. "I'm quite tall, so I make sure the handle is long enough so I don't have to bend over as much," Lishchyna noted.

Instead of bending, kneel on knee pads or on a kneeling mat with handles that is easy to move.

When purchasing tools, look for ergonomically designed items with padded handles to cushion hands and prevent the need for a tight grip.

Wear a hat and garden gloves.

Despite precautions, Lishchyna said you're bound to experience some aches. "If you have it for a day or two that's OK. That's just saying you're using your muscles."

Continue with your daily activities and gentle stretching, she said. An ice pack covered with a towel placed on sore muscles in the first two days can help ease inflammation.

"We usually use the formula of 10-10-10, so 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, 10 minutes on. You can do that a few times through the day," Lishchyna said.

"After 48 hours you can start using heat, but initially when you have a little bit of inflammation going on you don't want to put heat on because it will actually make it a little bit worse."

If you're nursing pain for more than 48 hours, visit your chiropractor, doctor, physiotherapist or a massage therapist for help to avoid a chronic situation.

"You've got to make sure you take care of yourself because otherwise you don't want to be in my office!" Lishchyna said.

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