"I've already seen an increase in the number of patients coming in complaining of aches and pains as a result of DIY and spring-cleaning this year," says acupuncturist and founding member of the British Acupuncture Council, Sue Kalicinska, (www.acupuncture-helps.co.uk).
"Most lower back pain is caused not by serious damage or disease, but by sprains, muscle strains, minor injuries, or a pinched or irritated nerve – doing tasks around the home and garden can cause any of these, if you're not careful."
Warm up before you tackle the garden or decorating
Gardening is like any form of exercise so if you go at it without warming up your muscles first, they’ll revolt. The result? Strained muscles. “Have a hot shower before you start or go for a brisk stroll around the block,” says personal fitness trainer Ray Klerck. “That will get your circulation going so your muscles will have the blood supply they need to work.”
Don't do too much too soon
You’ve spent the winter wrapped up in a cardigan in front of the TV and suddenly you’re putting your body through a hardcore workout in the form of digging, weeding and planting. Rather than trying to landscape the entire garden in one go, take it easy. “Start with just one hour the first day, take a day off, see how your muscles feel, then aim for two hours the next session,” says Klerck.
Don't concentrate on one task for too long
If you spend an entire morning digging, your body will complain loudly. “Instead do a little of several different jobs that use different muscles and positions,” says Klerck. “Then the same a day or two later. You’ll get the same amount done but you won’t put too much pressure on one group of muscles.” So try twenty minutes of weeding, twenty of potting plants, twenty digging, for example.
How to avoid back strain while gardening
Looking down while you garden is often what causes back strain. “Try to keep your back straight and your head relaxed,” says Klerck.
Remember to drink enough water
You may have remembered to water the plants but what about you? “Your muscles need water to function properly,” says Klerck. “Stop regularly to have a refreshment.”
Wear old clothes when gardening or cleaning
When cleaning or gardening, wear clothes that you really don’t care about. Why? Because otherwise it’s tempting to carry mucky things such as a heavy plant pot at a distance from your body, with your arms held away. “This puts extra strain on your lower back and also your neck,” says Klerck. Hug things close to you and they’ll be easier to carry.
Make sure you're working at the right height
Invest in an adjustable work bench so you can put it at the right height whatever the job. And make sure the shelves in your greenhouse are at a height that doesn’t require you to bend excessively. Whether you’re sawing, planing or potting plants, you need whatever you’re working on to be at around hip height. Be aware, though, that you may have longer or shorter arms or legs than the average person, so the most important thing is to adjust your work area to suit your task and your body.
Too late? Find out how to soothe those aches and pains
If you’ve already done too much today, try one of these methods to prevent muscle aches and pains:
Have a cold shower. This might sound counterintuitive but what do footballers do if they suffer an injury on the pitch? They put ice on the affected area. Cold temperatures can reduce muscle inflammation and associated pain. You could also try applying a cold flannel or similar directly to the muscle that feels strained.
Compress and elevate. Using a wrap or compress on the affected limb will help reduce inflammation and keeping your limb elevated also helps.
Rest a little. It goes without saying that if you’ve put a strain in your muscles the best way to recover is to let those muscles take a break. But don’t stop moving completely – gentle motion or stretching is ideal for preventing further muscle pain.
Later, have a hot bath. Several hours after your hard work or the day after, have a relaxing warm bath. Add some epsom salts too. Epsom salts, which are made with magnesium sulfate, will help reduce swelling and soothe aches.
Take an anti-inflammatory. Paracetemol and ibuprofen are both anti-inflammatories that are available without a prescription. Be sure to read the leaflet to make sure they won’t interfere with any other medication you’re taking.
Read our guide to painkillers
Try acupuncture. Treat your back pain with acupuncture. "Treatment has been shown to help relieve pain and aid recovery," says Sue Kalicinska. "And it also reduces a patient's need for medication."
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