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Stretch Before You Pick Up That Rake: Expert

THURSDAY, May 19 -- If you're planning on digging up your garden or taking to the playing fields this summer, make sure you start slow, take breaks and stretch.

Experts caution that jumping into new activities too quickly after a long winter's rest can lead to back pain.

"When it comes to gardening and back pain, your body may need a few weeks after the long winter to become accustomed again to the physical stresses of gardening, such as squatting, twisting, lifting and digging," said Dr. David Wang, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at The Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine in McLean, Va., in a news release.

More than 80 percent of people will experience lower back pain at some point during their lives, according to Wang. Fortunately, he added, preventative measures can lower the risk of back pain, including:

  • Take it slow. Do not attempt too much right away. Try to split large projects into several smaller ones, and take time to build stamina.
  • Warm up. Before you jump into a sport or activity, begin with 10 to 20 repetitions of gentle exercises such as standing hip circles, toe touches, back bends and leg lifts.
  • Consider body position. When lifting heavy objects, use your legs and preserve your back. You can do this by keeping the item close to your body, and squatting to keep your back as vertical as possible.
  • Take breaks. Avoid overexerting your muscles. Rest and change your position every 15 minutes or so, especially if you are kneeling, squatting or sitting in a bent or twisted position.
  • Use proper equipment. When possible, use long-handled gardening tools to minimize the amount of back bending you need to do. The proper sporting equipment is also essential to protecting your back.
  • Stretch. After physical activity, hold stretches for 30 seconds to gradually improve your flexibility and reduce injury risk.

Several weeks before a new sports season begins, Wang added that athletes can also work with a physical therapist or personal trainer to condition their bodies and prevent back strain.

Although most cases of back pain resolve on their own, Wang warned there are certain situations where people should consult a doctor, including situations in which:

  • Pain gets progressively worse or lasts longer than three weeks.
  • Back pain is accompanied by problems with your balance, bladder or bowel function.
  • Back pain is accompanied by leg pain, numbness or weakness.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health offers additional tips on how to prevent back pain.

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Posted: May 2011