Why do I get lower back pain from gardening?

May 13 2020

I have heard more questions about lower back pain from gardening over the last few weeks than I ever have before!

You might have more time now to finally flex those green fingers. Or perhaps, since supermarket queues and shortages, you’re starting to grow your own fruit and veg.

Gardening is a healthy habit. It’s great physical exercise, burning up to 400 calories an hour. The problem? All those hours hunched over your peonies can have its price – lower back pain.

What is your lower back made of?

Your lower back is an incredibly complicated bit of machinery. It’s also the foundation for all of your movement, from getting out of bed to sitting down to breakfast, to putting in some hill sprints. And, of course, gardening.

Physios often talk about the lumbar spine. This is the lower end of the spine – the bottom five vertebra. Sandwiched between each vertebra is a squidgy vertebral disc that helps with shock absorption.

Each vertebra is attached to its nearest vertebral discs by tiny joints called facet joints. The facet joints are themselves attached to your lower back muscles. These allow you to move, run, jump… and get stuck into some serious potato digging. If you’ve ever had a gym instructor talk to you about working out your ‘core’, these are the muscles they’re referring to.

Tell me more about the core…

The core muscles are pretty clever. They’re a real powerhouse that includes your gluteals, pelvic floor, diaphragm and deep abdominal muscles (plus a few more Latin names that I’ll spare you right now).

The core muscles work together to form a super unit around your lumbar spine. Think of them as being like a tin of beans.

At the top, the lid of the tin is your diaphragm. At the bottom, your pelvic floor is the base of the tin. And your deep abdominal muscles and glutes form the walls of the tin. The muscles work in synergy to support the five lumbar vertebrae keeping them, and the rest of your body, moving.

There’s a lot that can go wrong (as well as right)

The muscles and bones around your lumbar spine are pretty amazing, but they’re also complicated. And the more complicated something is, the more likely it is to go wrong. Think of it like a car. 50 years ago, most people could have a decent stab at opening up their bonnet and fixing a minor car problem. Now? Most of us head straight to the local mechanic for help, because cars today are just too complex. Your lower back is much more like a 21st-century car than a 20th-century one.

So what’s with the lower back pain from gardening?

Any kind of repetitive action is tough on your body. And gardening tends to involve a lot of repetition – digging, raking, planting, seeding…

Let’s stick with the car analogy. Imagine if you took your car out now onto your street and made handbrake turn after handbrake turn, over and over again. Apart from worrying your neighbours, you’d probably also do some damage to your car.

The same applies to your lower back. If you keep on bending in the same way over and over, you’ll end up with malfunction and pain. This is, of course, particularly likely if your core muscles weren’t as strong as they could have been to start with.

What can I do about lower back pain from gardening?

There’s lots you can do – even if you can’t see a physio right now.

Some key things to remember while you’re gardening are:

  • Bend your knees, not your back. Always think squat, not bend.
  • Take your time. The pleasure of gardening is in its gentleness, so take your time and take lots of tea breaks.
  • Avoid repetition where you can. Plan for no more than 30 minutes on one task at a time.
  • Avoid moving heavy things solo. The maximum weight you can safely move is usually 25kg for a man and 16kg for a woman. Make use of wheelbarrows and gorilla buckets too.

More than anything… strengthen your core

A stronger core means more gardening (and more gardening means better-looking peonies and tastier strawberries).

We’ve put some videos together on core strengthening on our YouTube channel. Check them out as your starting point.

And if you need any help at all with your lower back pain please get in touch!