Gardening and Back Pain

By Desiree Gibbs, PT, MS, ABDA. Ambient Physical Therapy, Skillman, NJ 08558.

One of the most amazing parts of spring and summer is the abundance of flowers and beautiful gardens in my neighborhood. The lush greeneries and bucolic lawns create a wonderful backdrop to these gorgeous flowers. I often wonder how they accomplish the task of getting their gardens to flourish. All I know is it’s quite a Herculean task to do mine.


One day I decided to take on this project. Early in the Fall of last year, I was browsing a gardening magazine and decided it was so easy to copy one of the gardens. Piece of cake! I went to bed that night imagining about how my garden was going to be even more beautiful if I put an arbor at its entry. As a matter of fact, I thought, I will make the garden quadruple the size I saw in the magazine. What a magnificent idea! I figured more space, more fragrant flowers.


Until the day I started digging the soil. I realized I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I was determined. Four hours into the laborious and back-breaking activity of picking the soil, I learned this was not going to be easy. All the muscles behind my legs and my back agreed. The soil was literally as hard as a rock. The pick was not that light either. At this point, a tractor was not an option. A rototiller was not in the budget. To rent one, I had to get it into a truck. First, I didn’t have a truck. Second, how would I get it up there if I did? I needed to change my strategy fast.


I am sure many garden hobbyists who only engage on the weekends and in the spring or summer experience the discomfort and fatigue I am describing. Occasionally, it sparks a back injury or muscle strain called Lumbago. On other occasions, it causes an acute exacerbation of chronic back conditions. But many of us, determined to finish what we started, keep plugging along until we see the fruit of our labor---beautiful flowers and nutritious vegetables!

Often the back pain and the pain on the side of the hip or leg continue long after you’ve enjoyed the veggies and the bouquets of flowers. So, you go to the doctor. Then, he sends you to physical therapy.


In physical therapy, you are taught proper biomechanics of bending. You argue that you never bent too much starting from a standing position because you learned quickly that this action kills your back. You observed proper body mechanics, too. You proceeded to tell your therapist, you actually sat on a stool and pulled weeds that way. That was my strategy. You bent from a sitting position. Now, the lateral side of your left hip still bothers you. Sometimes it starts from just one side of your lower back near the buttocks down to the hip joint area. Sometimes, the pattern is reversed. It starts from the side of your hip to one side of your lowback. In fact now, even sitting in your office chair in front of the computer your left hip is still achy. The doctor said you do not have sciatica either. The physical therapist agreed. What’s next?


Well, first, observing proper body mechanics in bending or lifting is a great idea. This is a position where you bend both hips and knees slightly while keeping the lower back straight when lifting anything above the ground in order to protect your back. So, congratulations if you are already doing that. Next, if you are sitting on a low stool for a prolonged period of time such as gardening, I suggest that you take a periodic break and stretch your body upright in good standing posture. Do this at least once every hour. If you already have the pain in the left or the right side of your hip, take the time to stand up straight even more often, like every 30 minutes. Keep the body in upright neutral position as much as you can. Keeping a timer handy is not a bad idea either. As a garden enthusiast, I know that the garden is the one place where we could get lost in time and space.

Unless, you have other pathology in the hip or lowback that is unknown, sometimes the reason for the discomfort in the lateral border of your hip is what I refer to as Tensor Fascia Lata Syndrome. There could be other reasons why this muscle becomes inflamed or painful. Certainly proper examination from the doctor and your physical therapist are important because the hip girdle is a complex region. The spine is also complex and it supplies the nerve roots that innervate the muscles in the legs. There is no question that you should seek a medical professional first before getting the urge to self-diagnose. Symptoms of other internal organs can sometimes mimic muscular or positional discomfort. It is important to rule that out first.


Enjoy gardening!


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This article is an extract. Email desiree@ambientpt.com for the full article request. Desiree Gibbs is the owner of Ambient Physical Therapy in Skillman, NJ 08558. Tel: 609-924-6800. She is also affiliated with the Princeton Orthopedics Neck and Back Institute, Princeton, NJ; and University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro, Acute Rehab Division. Email address: desiree@ambientpt.com .

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