It’s that time of year again when the days turn cooler and shorter and the leaves begin to fall; many, many leaves. Raking those leaves doesn’t have to lead to back injuries, according to pain management specialist Kaliq Chang, MD, with Atlantic Spine Center. “Raking leaves requires a variety of different movements, such as twisting, bending, lifting and reaching, which use several key muscle groups in the back, shoulders and wrists,” says Dr. Chang. However, with careful thought and measured movement, injuries that might last longer than an afternoon raking the yard can be avoided.”
The stress and strain of raking leaves is cause for concern. Indeed, approximately 38,000 Americans suffered injuries related to leaf-raking – including back injuries – in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Tips to avoid raking-related back strain
The good news, Dr. Chang says, is there are countless ways to enjoy the autumn activity of raking without ending up in pain afterwards. His tips to prevent raking-related back injuries include:
- Prepare for raking with some stretching: Treat the preparation for raking like you would before a game of tennis or friendly football. Stretch your back, leg and shoulder muscles before a leaf-raking session. Focus on your upper and lower back areas, arms, neck and legs and hold each stretch for 30 seconds or more, Dr. Chang suggests.
- Avoid twisting: Let your feet and hips do some of the work. Try to avoid planting your feet on the ground while raking and twisting in all directions with your back. Instead, try moving your feet into different surrounding areas. “Let your hips and feet do some of the work,” Dr. Chang says.
- Stand tall to align your spine: Keep your legs shoulder-width apart and bend knees slightly. Stand straight up often to rest the lower back. Staying hunched over while raking strains lower back muscles, Dr. Chang notes.
- Make sure you have a rake that fits your size: Tools are sold in varying sizes, and your rake should be properly sized for your height and strength.
- Pick proper shoes for the job: Wear shoes with skid-resistant soles to minimize the risk of slipping (especially if leaves are damp) or falling. Don’t take the easy way and just kick on the closest pair of shoes before heading out to rake, Dr. Chang advises.
- When picking up leaves, bend at the knees: Bend your knees while disposing of leaves, rather than letting your back bear the brunt of the movement and weight, Dr. Chang says. Picking up leaf piles (or dragging a tarp full of them) requires a lot of strength that can strain your back.
- Don’t go to hard at it without taking a break: We suggest that you treat raking like any other form of vigorous exercise – meaning you should take a break every 30 minutes or so, Dr. Chang recommends. “This tip is especially important for people who don’t exercise regularly and for whom this might be a serious physical challenge” he adds. “It is always more beneficial to finish the job a little more slowly than have to cause an injury.”
- When you are done: One last thing is to take a few moments when you are done raking and hauling leaves for the day to gently stretch muscles one last time.
Back Pain Treatment
Dr. Chang acknowledges that sometimes prevention efforts somehow fail. “If you experience continuing back pain 24 to 48 hours after leaf-raking, make sure to place ice on the affected areas for 20 minutes a couple of times a day,” Dr. Chang suggests. “However, he adds, if the pain persists for longer than a few days or is severe, it is best to see a spine specialist to properly diagnose and treat the problem. Raking leaves shouldn’t become a pesky chore that plagues you with lingering back pain.”
Kaliq Chang, MD, is a board-certified physician in pain management and anesthesiology with Atlantic Spine Center.