Mother Nature has been kind to us Western New Yorkers this fall. While you may be enjoying the abnormally warm temperatures, don’t be fooled Buffalo! The leaves are beginning to fall and over the next month you will likely join your neighbors in a raking frenzy to clean up your yard before the winter hits. This shortened fall season will make leaf clean up more challenging.
Raking, shoveling, and lifting are some of the most common causes of low back injuries. National statistics from the United States indicates a yearly prevalence of low back injury around the 15-20% of the population(1). To understand why raking can wreak havoc on our backs, let’s first review some anatomy.
The discs in our back are well designed to handle loads while we are standing upright. However as we lean forward, the pressure on our disc increased by more than 100% (2). When comparing standing to the position of forward bending and rotation, it increased the pressure by an astounding 400% (2)!
Take a minute to think about how your spine is positioned while you are raking. Most of us are bent over and rotated (the position which puts nearly 400% more pressure on your discs). You may start out being mindful of how your body is moving, but if you are like most, body mechanics get tossed out the window as you get tired and begin to rush. Rushing through your hard clean up in a bent over and twisted raking postion is putting you at risk.
How to Avoid Injury
The key to avoiding injury is the maintain proper body mechanics with a NEUTRAL (straight) spine. This can be accomplished by holding the rake close to your body with one hand at the top of the handle and the other hand down the handle while keeping your lower elbow slightly bent. Your leg and hip muscles are much more powerful than your back and arm muscles. Therefore while raking, make sure you step with the rake and avoid reaching away from your body or bending with your back. This method may add a few minutes to the clean up, but will save you months of rehab for a back injury.
Now that you have mastered raking, it is time to think about lifting. When lifting keep your back straight in a neutral alignment and use your legs to do the lifting. Keep the bag close and directly in front of your body so that you do not have to work harder by bending and twisting. Lastly, make sure to keep the bag a manageable weight for you. Moving five lighter bags will be easier (and SAFER) than four heavy bags.
A Few Quick Tips
1. Warm Up. Take 5-10 minutes to prepare your body for the activity with basic stretches and warm ups of your arms, legs, and back.
2. Choose the right rake. Pick a rake proportionate to your body size.
3. Take frequent breaks. This will decrease the likelihood of injury as you allow your muscles and lungs recover from the chore of raking.
4. Work with the wind. If it happens to be a windy day while you are raking use this to your advantage by allowing the wind to assist you.
5. Rake when it’s dry. Not only is it harder to rake wet leaves, but wet leaves are heavier than dry ones, putting more strain on your body, especially when lifting.
6. Switch hands frequently. This will prevent overuse on one side of your body.
7. Work smarter, not harder. Rake the leaves into small piles on a tarp so that it is manageable to move. Raking into to one big pile not only takes longer, but is much harder to manage when you have to move them to another location.
8. Ask for help. Whether this is from family members, neighbors, or even hiring someone to do it for you, the more help the better.
Most importantly listen to your body! Pain is an indication that something is wrong. If you repetitively perform a movement that is causing pain, you are getting yourself one step closer to an injury. Use these proper body mechanics and tips so that you can enjoy all that this autumn season has to offer, while being pain free!
1.Gunnar B J Andersson (1998) Epidemiology of low back pain, Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica, 69:sup281, 28-31
2. Nachemson, Alf, and G. O. S. T. A. Elfstrom. “Intravital dynamic pressure measurements in lumbar discs.” Scand J Rehabil Med 2.suppl 1 (1970): 1-40.
3.Schmidt H, Kettler A, Heuer F, Simon U, Claes L, Wilke HJ. Intradiscal pressure, shear strain, and fiber strain in the intervertebral disc under combined loading. Spine (Phila Pa 1976) 2007;32:748–755