War of the Roses: Battling Muscle Strain from Gardening

By Martha Michael

Strains from Gardening

Gardening is probably most associated with springtime, but the truth is there’s work to do all year round. Between chores to maintain grass, battling gophers and keeping beds free from weeds, you could spend every weekend at war with Mother Nature’s wild side.

What you don’t want are battle scars -- injuries incurred from digging and planting that involves extensive reaching, leaning, twisting, and repeated arm movements. Beware of overdoing it because you could end up with painful symptoms.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Repeated movement -- especially when you haven’t stretched or worked up to that level of activity -- may result in microscopic muscle tears, which can lead to delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, says an article in Reader’s Digest. It can become worse, causing muscle strain or other injury if you don’t take it easy.

You may not feel the effects of DOMS until one to three days after you’ve overdone it, which makes it challenging to prevent.

The symptoms may include:

  • Swelling
  • Muscle tenderness
  • Stiffness
  • Loss of strength

Technically, DOMS is caused by the muscles shortening and lengthening from rapid, powerful movement. If you’re leaning forward from a ladder with your loppers to trim trees or using a post-hole digger to replace your fencing, you may suffer later, unless those are the types of movements you do on a regular basis.

“Many researchers believe it is inflammation that comes after the microscopic tearing that results in the ‘delayed’ part of DOMS,” says Dr. Phil Chilibeck, chair of the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. “After microscopic muscle injury, immune cells go to the site of injury to ‘clean things up’ -- in other words, repair the damage -- which results in the inflammation and pain.”

Assessing the Casualties

If you experience some stiffness or soreness, that’s one thing. But if you have problems walking, your recovery time could be higher because it’s more likely you strained a muscle.

“With DOMS, you feel the pain in the muscle if you press down on it with your finger,” says Chilibeck. “Your muscle strength and range of motion are diminished, sometimes for days.” Time is of the essence: If the pain doesn’t go away -- if it takes you more than a week to recover -- you need to get yourself checked out.”

When you suspect you’ve overdone it, see your chiropractor for an evaluation sooner rather than later, so you can begin treatment. With chiropractic care you can get focused attention to the offended area, as well as get an expert assessment of the extent of the damage to your body.

Post-War Treatment

Once you know the level of injury you incurred, you can look at various treatment options.

Manual therapies, along with specific chiropractic adjustments, can relieve symptoms and correct joints that have been affected by your body’s unexpected movements.

Your chiropractor may choose to apply heat to the area of muscle strain. If recommended, you can continue treatment by using a heating pad at home to further minimize soreness.

You can also bring heat to the area with a warm bath. If you can spend 20 minutes in a whirlpool, that’s ideal. You may add Epsom or dead sea salts to the bathtub, plus you can use 15 drops lavender, calendula, rosemary, eucalyptus, ginger or St. John’s Wort essential oils.

Depending of the severity of the strain, sore muscles can also be treated with ice. Fill a Styrofoam cup with water and peel off the top of the cup. The edge of the ice is exposed so you can rub the injured area. Move it in the same direction as the muscle and stretch as you go. The cold minimizes inflammation, so you get best results if you apply ice within the first 48 hours.

Be Combat Ready

You don’t have to beat the bushes to find some effective measures for reducing the chance you develop DOMS when you head outside. There are other measures you can take to remain pain-free when you work outdoors, according to an article in Prevention Magazine.

Exercise in advance - Though warming up might seem like something reserved for your yoga class, it’s a good preventative measure against developing DOMS. It may at least reduce the symptoms you incur. Ask your chiropractor for a warm-up plan before you start the heavy lifting. He or she can help you create a personal exercise plan, which will probably include some low-intensity isometric contractions.

Slow down and take breaks - Working at a project steadily, rather than rapidly, is a better pace for chores. Stop for about 5 minutes every hour to hydrate and do some stretching and sitting down.

Minimize bending and reaching - Use your knees rather than your back when changing positions. Get closer to your task, because even weeding can strain your back. “Physical therapists, chiropractors, and other experts in the field will tell you that you are most vulnerable to injury when you are bending at the waist and reaching,” the article says. “You're also more prone to losing your balance and falling in this position.” Even pulling weeds puts more strain on your lower back than you realize.

Use potted plants or raise your garden - If you can’t get -- and stay -- near your project, bring the project to you. You can raise your beds or create vertical wall gardens so you can stay upright or seated while you work.

Many flowering plants, trees and vegetables grow in pots perfectly well. And you want to see the fruits of your labor budding in spring, not the resulting injuries from yardwork in the fall.

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