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Why Raking “Leaves” You with Back Problems

by Joseph Musolino, DC

Raking leaves is a chore but it’s great exercise and an even a greater calorie burn (350 calories per/hour on average). But if you have back, neck or shoulder problems there are a few steps you need to protect yourself while trying to maintain a nice looking lawn. Chiropractor Joe Musolino instructs you in the DO’s and DON’T’s in proper use of the rake. 

Despite the shorter days, cooler weather, and the eminent arrival of winter, fall is the favorite season for many people. This can be explained by the breathtaking beauty of nature as we are immersed in a palette of colors that never ceases to amaze. Eventually, though, all good things must come to an end and thus begins the least favorite aspect of the season: cleaning up all those dead leaves piling up in the yard! Is there anything worse than spending the bulk of your weekend all bundled up on a dreary autumn day, exposed to the elements, laboring to rake and bag all those wet, heavy leaves? Makes you long for winter and the ease of clearing ten inches of snow from your driveway with your two stage snow blower equipped with auto-turn steering and heated handles doing all the work! Unfortunately getting your yard to look more pristine than your neighbors, at least for a few hours until those leaves slowly flutter back down, is not your only worry. Preventing your lower back from acting up and keeping you from tackling the next round of never-ending leaf accumulation is right up there. Especially if your kids have soccer all day, are off to college, or flew the nest years ago!

So how can you keep your lower back from making your day even more miserable than it was when all you had to deal with was a few hours of yard work? Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to keep your back on track.

  1. DO stretch before AND after you work in the yard. Stretching beforehand loosens up your muscles, ligaments and spinal joints, which minimizes the chances that you will suffer an acute injury. More importantly, stretching afterward prevents chronic tightness from setting in which can lead to gradual breaking down of the spinal tissues and eventual lower back problems.
  2. DON’T bend forward at the waist. This will take a conscientious effort on your part but is essential. Bending forward places extreme loads on the intervertebral discs, the cushions between the vertebrae that act as shock absorbers. This causes minor tears to form in the outer disc wall that keeps the inner nucleus contained and gradually bulging and/or herniated discs may result leading to excruciating lower back pain and sciatica.
  3. DO ice afterward if your back feels sore and/or tight. After working outside in cooler weather the first thing we want to do is get indoors and warm up right? Just the thought of applying ice to your lower back when you’re chilly is painful in itself, let alone actually doing it! But after straining your back repetitively for hours your spinal tissues become inflamed and the last thing you want to do in that situation is to place heat on the area. Remember ice may not feel as comforting as heat but it never hurts, as long as you don’t place it directly on the skin (always put a thin layer of cloth between the ice and your skin).
  4. DON’T ignore your back if it’s sending you warning signs. This applies both during the time that you’re actually out there cleaning up the yard as well as anytime afterward when you’re basking in your accomplishment. Pain is your body’s way of alerting you that something is wrong and that you need to heed the warning. It is a noxious stimulus in response to tissue irritation and when ignored leads to chronic pain and dysfunction.
  5. DO see a specialist if your symptoms persist. There’s nothing wrong with trying to address your pain through rest, activity modifications, home therapy, and over-the-counter medications, to name a few. The problem that you risk running into occurs when the pain is not going away despite your trying everything that all those websites you’ve referenced are suggesting. Ignoring your pain leads to degenerative tissue changes which causes chronic dysfunction, arthritis, and even debilitation. That’s why it’s always in your best interest to be safe rather than sorry. And the sooner you get it looked at the easier, and quicker, it is to treat successfully!

So what are you waiting for? Get outside and enjoy the surrounding scenery, and seasonal weather, if you’re lucky, while also gaining the benefit of burning a minimum of 350 calories per hour! Now you have no excuse for sitting lazily on your couch (which by the way burns only 68 calories per hour!) watching through the window as the leaves pile up. With proper preparation and technique you can turn your yard into the envy of the neighborhood without injuring yourself. For the time being that is. “Leave” the back problems (get it?) for your next-door neighbor to deal with after they clean up their yard the next day and you realize that you need to get back out there once again. And why is it that people actually like fall?