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Pain in spades?


STRENUOUS WORK The repetitive bending and twisting movements of digging, raking and planting puts quite a load the body.

The gradual gardener gets more done in the long run

Andrew O'Brien

We moved house a few months ago. They say moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do. For once, ‘they’ are understating it.
It’s a strange feeling being excited about something, but also dreading the little jobs that seem to breed like rabbits. Thankfully, we seem to be at the end of all of the inside jobs. Just in time for the approach of spring and, so I’m told, gardening season. I’ve never been much of a gardener, but we have a new house, and it’s probably time to start thinking about it; before long every newspaper and magazine will have a gardening supplement and the garden centres will be full to bursting with things that I just about manage to identify as ‘plants’.
But before everyone goes charging into the digging and planting, topsoil spreading and landscaping, it’s important to remember that gardening can be pretty hard work. Hard work that you may not have done since the autumn when you went into hibernation, or in my case since I graduated from university and stopped spending my summers on building sites.
Getting back into strenuous physical work after an extended rest can cause problems. I often tell my patients that the first sunny weekend in spring gives me three weeks of work, as all the would-be Diarmuid Gavins go wild and try to do everything in one go. Perhaps it’s time to heed my own advice.
The repetitive, high-load activities of gardening can lead to pain in the lower back, shoulders and arms especially. Usually, these are just muscular aches from a sudden increase in activity, and they settle within a few days, but for some people they can be more significant and longer lasting.
The most obvious way to avoid pain as you increase activity, is to be conditioned for that activity: that’s why sportsmen have pre-season training. Now I’m not going to suggest that you get out a shovel and practice in the sitting room every evening; what would the neighbours say? What I would recommend is that you don’t go in completely cold. Try to build into it gradually: as the evenings get brighter, start with a few small jobs so that when the big blitz comes on the weekend there’s less to do and you’re more physically ready.
The repetitive bending and twisting movements of digging, raking and planting puts quite a load through the lower back and, for those who aren’t used to it, several hours of digging might leave some reaching for the anti-inflammatories. But how often do you really need to do several hours of digging? Why not break the tasks up a bit? Dig, trim the hedge, dig again, have a cuppa, mow the lawn, dig some more. Just as factory workers move between workstations during the day, varying your activities in the garden can lower your risk of pain (and boredom!).
Better still, why try to do the whole thing in one go? Yes, sometimes it’s easy to just get stuck in, keep going and enjoy a nice cold drink at the end, but in the long run you’d be better served to take your time and do the work over a couple of weeks. As my mum has been heard to tell my dad: ‘If you do it all today, you’ll have nothing to do tomorrow!’. And you get to have that well-earned cold drink two weeks in a row.
If you have hedges and trees to trim and need to be working at shoulder height or above, use steps and ladders wherever possible. Working with a heavy object at shoulder height when you’re more used to a desk is a big change. So too using the scissor-style branch trimmers (see, I said I’m not a gardener) that require you to generate power at arm’s length in awkward positions with a leaf tickling your nose and the dog licking your foot. The closer your hands are to your body when exerting a force, the easier it is to do and the less likely you are to hurt yourself. It goes without saying that having someone hold the ladder steady is pretty important too; a sore shoulder just might be better than a broken leg.
In short, if you’re a gardener: get out and enjoy it, but start gradually. If you’re any good and you really enjoy it, my number’s below and all offers of help will be considered!

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at