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Quick Fixes for “Gardener’s Back”

Gardener’s back may not be an official medical condition, but if you’ve ever felt twinges, aches, and muscle pains after an afternoon of tending to your plants, you know it’s no joke. What starts off as mild soreness can easily be serious back pain by the end of summer.

Fortunately, you don’t have to suffer in silence. In fact, with a proactive approach to caring for your major neck and back muscles, you may not have to suffer at all. Just try these quick fixes for all the elements of gardener’s back to ease that muscle tension and keep your back feeling as good as your garden looks.

Note: These stretches are for mild pain and stiffness. If you have sudden, stabbing nerve or muscle pain, it may be a sign to see a doctor or professional therapist about your pain.

Neck Pain = Rolls & Leans

The neck pain portion of gardener’s back usually strikes after a few hours leaning over rows of small plants, weeding and squinting down to see what’s eating the leaves this time. You finish your task, straighten up, and your neck sounds like firecrackers on the 4th of July. Not fun, but very fixable with a combination of rolls and leans.

The leans take the form of compass points with your head. Starting from an upright position, lean your head to the right as though you are pointing to your right shoulder. Hold for a count of ten, and then gently return to the upright position. Then lean to each of your other compass points – chin straight up, chin straight down, and left shoulder – for a count of ten, returning to the upright position between each lean.

Following your leans with rolls. The roll is a full circle, with the goal being maximum range of motion at minimum speed. Slower rolls provide gentler and deeper stretching than a fast whip around. Start in an upright position, and then let the weight of your head fall forward. When you reach the limit of your natural stretch forward, roll gently in full circles several times, and expect to feel the stretch all the way down into your shoulders.

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Upper Back Pain = Chest-Opening Arm Stretches

Upper back pain often results from the combination of leaning over the garden and reaching across rows. Basically, what you’re doing is lots of extending with the muscles on your back, while the muscles on your chest are short and tight as a counterbalance. The net result is that those tight chest muscles keep pulling when the work is done, causing pain on your overworked back muscles.

To fight this pain, you want to turn to chest-opening arm stretches. A very simple one is the doorway stretch, which you can do on your way back into the house if you like. Standing in the middle of the door, place your arms on the doorjamb, flat against the frame from palm to elbow, upper arm parallel to the ground. Lean in for a count of ten and feel the pull across your chest. Repeat two or three times and then just continue on into the house.

Other chest-opening stretches you can do include overarm stretches and behind-the-back stretching. For behind the back stretching, swing both arms behind you and clasp hands down by your hips. Then raise your arms as high as they will go, hold for a count of five, and lower your arms again, repeating two or three times. For the overarm stretches, put your right elbow up by your ear and drop your forearm behind your head, holding for a count of ten, and then lowering your arm and repeating on the left side.

Lower Back Pain = Major Muscle Group Balancing

Lower back pain is often linked to major muscle group imbalances. Work on the imbalances, and you’ll be able to reduce much of the soreness.

First come some sitting back stretches. Settle yourself into a comfortable cross-leg position, facing straight ahead and sitting tall. Holding your left arm stiff like a lever, place your left wrist on the outside of your right knee. You should feel the stretch of the twist across your lower back, concentrated on the left. Hold for a count of ten and then release, relaxing for a moment before repeating the motion on the opposite side. Finish by placing both hands behind you on the ground and pointing your chin skyward while you arch your chest up. This stretches the front muscles to balance those on the back.

After these back stretches, you’ll want to stretch your legs to loosen up your hamstrings and glutes, as their connection with your lower back is often aggravated by garden kneeling, bending, and sitting. Unfolding your cross-legged sit, make a “V” with your legs, toes pointing up. Raise your left arm over your head and bend toward your right foot, hold for ten, and return to center. Then repeat with your right arm. You’ll feel a stretch in both your sides and along your legs. Finish by reaching both hands toward your left toes and then your right toes, holding each side from a count of ten. When you stand up, shake your arms and legs out gently to sweep away any lingering stiffness from gardening, and you should be good to go.

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