Ali Moshirfar, MD, is board-certified in orthopaedic surgery. He is a member of the Inova Neuroscience and Spine Institute and Chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Director of spine surgery at Inova Loudoun Hospital.
Tina Poore, MSHA, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist and manager of acute care rehabilitation and the joint/spine service lines at Inova Loudoun Hospital.
Summertime is prime time for getting outside. For many of us, that means it’s high season for yardwork and gardening. Unfortunately, doing more physical labor than you’re used to can put you at risk of back injuries.
But yardwork doesn’t have to leave you hurting. These strategies can help you manage back pain – and, even better, help prevent you from injuring your spine in the first place.
Back Pain Causes
When we see patients who have injured their backs doing yardwork or other physical activity, they usually fall into one of these categories:
- Back strains. Strains occur when back muscles are stretched. They’re the most common back injury in middle-aged men and women and often occur when lifting something incorrectly. Strains may cause stiffness, muscle spasms and low back pain that can extend into the gluteus muscles (but not into the legs). Strains usually heal on their own without medical treatment in about a week. Anti-inflammatory medications and rest can speed up recovery.
- Herniated disks. Also known as slipped disks, this injury occurs when one of the disks that cushion the vertebrae becomes torn and displaced. A herniated disk can cause pain in the lower back that radiates into the legs, a condition called sciatica. Like strains, herniated disks can be caused by improper lifting. Most herniated disks heal on their own without surgery, but doctors may prescribe stronger anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants to help ease the pain.
- Compression fractures. These injuries are most common in older adults whose bones are weakened by osteoporosis. They can be caused by falls or by lifting heavy objects like potted plants. We typically treat compression fractures with bracing and activity restrictions.
Preventing Back Injury
Luckily, many back injuries can be prevented with some simple steps.
- Stretch your muscles. Stretch before you begin to loosen your muscles. Take breaks to stop and stretch throughout the activity, especially if you start to feel stiff or achy.
- Lift correctly. Squat, hold the object close against your body and lift with your legs – not with your back.
- Consider support. If you’re doing more strenuous physical activity than usual, wear a supportive back brace to encourage good posture.
- Stand up. Don’t spend a lot of time bent over. If you’re planting flowers or pulling weeds, take regular breaks to stand up and give your spine a break. Instead of bending at the waist to weed and plant, try sitting on a very low stool close to the ground.
- Know your limits. If you have osteoporosis, fractures are more likely, even if you use proper lifting technique. Ask for help instead.
- Listen to your body. If you feel pain, stop what you’re doing.
Back Pain Relief
Back pain can sneak up on you. Many people don’t experience pain until a day or two after the injury occurs. If you find your back is aching after overdoing it in the garden, some simple measures can help you feel better.
- Rest. It typically takes at least 5 to 7 days for people to begin to rebound from a back injury, so take it easy as you recover.
- Heat. For back pain, heat is usually more effective than ice. Moist heat is particularly helpful, so use moist hot towels or soak in a hot shower or bath. If you use a heating pad, don’t use it continuously for more than an hour to prevent burns – and never sleep with a heating pad.
- Anti-inflammatories. Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen can reduce swelling and help ease the pain.
- See a doctor. If you’re still hurting after 5 days, or you have severe pain at any point, it’s time to see your primary care doctor for an evaluation.
If you’re suffering from back pain, the experts at the Inova Spine Program can diagnose the problem and create an individualized treatment plan. Call 703-776-4700 to schedule an appointment.