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12 Tips for Avoiding Low Back Pain While Raking Leaves

Fall is arguably the most beautiful season of the year.  Cooler temperatures, comfy sweaters, the smell of a fire burning in the fireplace and the changing colors of nature that surround us in the beautiful northwest.  Raking leaves can be an enjoyable way to spend time outdoors, soaking up the sights and smells of the season. Be careful out there, though, because if you’re not careful you could end up with back pain or sciatica or other potential injuries.

One of the most common complaints following several hours of raking leaves is low back pain. The repetitive movements and constant bending and lifting can wreak havoc on your back. If you’re not careful it’s easy to injure your back, making everyday activities and a good night’s sleep a challenge.

Rose City Physical Therapy is very familiar with back pain experienced by homeowners trying to keep up with constantly falling leaves. Every autumn they see many patients complaining of low back pain and sciatica after a weekend of raking leaves.

“One of the biggest mistakes many people make when raking leaves is not raking with both sides of the body,” says Rose City Physical Therapy. Most people only rake with their dominant hand causing the muscles and other tissues to strain on one side of the body. Switching hands is important to give those muscles a break and to build up strength in the same muscles on the other side.

Rose City Physical Therapy recommends following these 12 tips when raking leaves to help reduce muscle fatigue and to ideally avoid back pain all together.

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1. Warm up.
 Take a 5-10 minute brisk walk to warm up your muscles. Avoid any stretching of cold muscles prior to the activity. Scientific evidence reports that stretching without a warm-up increases risk of injury and there is no evidence that stretching before an activity prevents injury.

2. Choose the Right Rake. Use a rake that is proportionate to your body size. Using a rake that is too long or too short will cause you to alter your posture and strain your muscles. Consider the rake width. Narrow rakes may make the weight of the leaves lighter but they can also make the job longer. Extra wide rakes gather more leaves but can put more of a strain on your back.

3. Watch Your Posture. Like any exercise, proper form is important. Muscle pain and strain occurs when you put your body in awkward positions and then try to contract or extend muscles in these odd positions. To maintain proper posture while raking keep your legs slightly bent, your weight centered, and reach with your arms and not your back. After every 20 minutes of raking activity stand up, place hands on hips and gently stretch into a back bend for a few seconds 3-5 times especially before lifting anything. Do not extend to the point of causing pain.

4. Switch Hands Frequently. You exhaust your muscles with repetitive motion. Switch your lead arm frequently while raking to prevent, or alleviate, muscle exhaustion

5. Bend With Your Knees. When lifting leaves keep your back straight and bend with your knees and hips, not your back, when reaching down. The power for your lift comes from your buttocks and legs. Make the piles small to decrease the weight.

6. Rake With the Wind. Let Mother Nature give you a hand if possible. Rake leaves with the wind, even if the spot in the yard is different from where you wanted to rake the leaves.

7.Use a Tarp. Leaves are lightweight and can easily be moved on a tarp. Rake the leaves onto the tarp and pull one end of the tarp to move the leaves to your desired location. Doing this can save your back constant bending over to pick up piles of leaves to put into a garbage bag or wheelbarrow.

8.Drink Plenty of Water. Muscles need water to function optimally. When you maintain your body’s hydration during activity, you reduce the risk of muscle strain.

9.Wear Good Shoes. Wear supportive shoes with good support and skid-resistant soles. Standing on your feet and raking all day can put a lot of strain on your feet and legs. Good foot support can stop some of that strain from reaching your back and skid-resistant soles can minimize the risk of slipping on wet leaves and falling.

10. Consider a Leaf Blower. There are some lightweight gas and electric leaf blowers on the market that are hand held or can be worn like a backpack. Blowing all the leaves into one large pile or onto a tarp can save time and lots of energy.

11. Wear Gloves. Give your hands a break and wear gloves to prevent painful blisters.

12. Take Frequent Breaks. Taking your time will make it less likely for injuries to occur. Pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion can cause you to get sloppy with good posture and lifting techniques, setting you up for injury.

What can you do if you follow all of these tips and still wind up with low back pain?

We recommend conservative treatments including:

  • Ice pack for 20 minutes three times daily for 2-3 days for an acute injury. Alternate moist heat and ice treatments thereafter, or just use moist heat.
  • Exercise, stretching techniques, or physical therapy to repair and strengthen muscles.
  • Lifestyle changes such as weight loss and regular exercise.
  • Propping pillows behind your back when sitting to avoid slouched postures, and under knees when resting in bed to take pressure off of your lower back.

Contact us to set up a complimentary 20-minute consultation if you are experiencing back pain or sciatica, or if you have any questions.

Karl Kolbeck is a physical therapist and along with his wife Sasha they own Rose City Physical Therapy located in NW Portland. He’s been practicing for 25 years with specialties in treating the shoulder as well as runners. Karl is dual board certified in both orthopedic and sports clinical specialties, is certified in manual and manipulative therapy and is a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists. He teaches rehab based continuing medical education courses to physicians, physical therapists and athletic trainers across the nation. He and his staff are involved with multiple running groups in the Portland metro area, offering educational sessions and athlete screenings. Karl also provides care for the Bowerman Track Club Nike professional running team based in Portland.

Runner Safety Month - Be Safe Be Seen

November is National Runners Safety Month. The days in the Pacific NW are getting short; the nights long – and wet. This calls for poor visibility on the roadways. And with the necessity of work that occupies most people’s day, many of us run early in the morning before work, or in the evening after work – in the dark.

Our friends at Brooks Running have put together a nice infographic and BROOKS mnemonic to help you out. It’s not so much runner’s not seeing that creates accident threat; more so, it’s runners who are not seen by motorists.

Be Seen Be Heard

Be Safe

  • Run during the daytime if possible
  • Run with a partner
  • Tell someone your planned route and time of return…and stick to it
  • Run against traffic
  • Run in a lit and well-populated pedestrian area, which Portland has numerous options:
  • Run with mace pepper spray…it is legal in Oregon
  • Run without music…or if music is a must, wear only one ear bud to keep it easier to hear your surroundings
  • Wear a Road ID or carry another form of ID
  • Run with your cell phone
    • Be sure to have C.E. (In Case of Emergency) contacts set in your phone and turn on the Medical ID option for emergency contact access by fire and police
    • We recommend a slim line waist belt phone carrier (uFashionC3, fitTek) or arm band (Senbor) strap. Do not carry it in your hand as this offsets normal efficient arm carriage during the running cycle as well as creates a habit to keep looking at your phone and increases the risk of tripping and distraction.
    • Have your phones GPS turned on so you can be tracked
    • If you have an advanced technology sport watch, many have an option to sync GPS tracking from the phone to a website and app to track your metrics. Give a trusted source access to this website or app in case it’s necessary to track your whereabouts.
  • Don’t run the same route time after time
  • Wear reflective gear and lights (see Be Seen below)

Be Seen

Products we recommend must be easy to don, low profile, fit snugly without being too tight, and need to be lightweight. Thanks to technological advances, there are numerous products that fit this bill.

Now you don’t need to go out and purchase all these items and run weighted down by all the gadgets as well as look like a lit up Christmas tree. But choose a few. Think top (head), middle (torso and arms) and bottom (legs) of the body. The top and middle afford options for most visible gear; but there is something to be said about reflective ankle bands not being missed when car lights reflect off them as a runner is grinding through their strides.

Our favorites include:

Gear up and go run. Be Safe! Be Seen!