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When Enthusiasm is your enemy

SET BACK A strained back or other gardening injury could leave you unable to go into the garden for weeks and undo all your good work.

Gung-ho out-of-condition gardeners can all-too-easily get their comeuppance

Spring is (kind of) in the air. It won’t be long before the lambs are playing, the grass is growing, and the fragrant tang of slurry is wafting on the breeze. Every newspaper and magazine at this time of year has a gardening supplement and the garden centres are bursting with shiny rakes, new wheel barrows and rows of annuals, perennials and various other ‘ials’ that I will never understand.

But before you go mad digging and planting, topsoil spreading and landscaping, remember that gardening is hard work. Hard work that you may not have done since the autumn when you went into hibernation. And going into strenuous physical work after a six-month 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. The less optimistic among you might suggest that the first sunny weekend in spring is often also the last sunny weekend in spring!

The repetitive, high-load activities of gardening can cause pain in the lower back, shoulders and arms especially. Usually these are just muscular aches from a sudden increase in activity, and settle within a few days, but for some people they can be more significant and longer lasting. So here are a few tips to help guard against injury.

Build up 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 practise in the sitting room every evening, but if you do I will suggest that you close the curtains!

What I would recommend is that you don’t go in completely cold. Try to build into it gradually: as the evenings get brighter, do an hour or two after work so that when the big blitz comes on the weekend there’s less to do and you’re more physically ready.

Break it up The repetitive bending and twisting that comes from 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 can leave them reaching for the anti-inflammatories.

But how often do you really need to do several hours of digging? Why not break the jobs up a bit more? Dig, trim the hedge, dig again, have a cuppa, mow the lawn, dig some more. Much the same as factory workers get moved between stations during the day to avoid repetitive strain injury, vary your load in the garden and lower your own risks.

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.

Step up If you have hedges and trees to trim, and need to be working at shoulder height or above, use steps and ladders wherever possible. Holding heavy objects such as hedge trimmers at arms’ length and shoulder height is a pretty fast route to a sore shoulder.

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. Work hard, but take a break when you need to, otherwise you might find yourself sitting in a waiting room instead of sitting in the sun enjoying the results of your hard work.

This post first appeared in The Mayo News

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