It’s the time of year again where the air is crisp and cool, and working outside becomes refreshing. The leaves start to change colors and fall from the trees. Every year in the physical therapy world we see patients sustaining low back, hamstring, quadriceps and shoulder injuries by raking and lifting those leaves. We need to understand that our body is not groomed, maintained and fit enough to just take an activity and do it for an entire day. Some of us will rake once a week for 2-3 hours, filling and lifting bags with leaves. It is important for us to understand the proper biomechanics of the rotational movement and bending of the knees while lifting bags that weigh around 40-50 lbs. to prevent injuring ourselves.
First of all, we should understand that things need to be done in moderation. Though leaves are accumulating in the back yard, nothing is going to happen to the lawn if you cannot get them all up in 5 minutes or less. We need to take our time by taking breaks to make sure that we are not getting stiff and cold. My advice is that you rake in 20 minute increments. Do 20 minutes of lifting, raking and putting leaves into bags, and then take a break to rest and rehydrate yourself with a glass of water. Then you can resume raking leaves for another 20 minutes. If you do not exercise regularly it is important to work in moderation so that you do not injure yourself.
Many patients during this time of year complain about shoulder pain and low back pain because of the repetitive movements that their bodies are not used to. Back injuries that are sustained are usually muscle strains of the lower back, or sometimes even disc herniations. If you have any pain in your back, rate your pain on a 1-10 scale. If your pain is a 3 or above, especially towards the 10 level, you should stop doing the activity immediately and seek medical help. If your pain is 3 or below it could suggest that you may be getting a spasm or strain of that area. It is then important to decrease activity and continue work the next day, but in slower moderation.
Secondly, the component of stretching is just as important. After we are done raking the leaves we should be doing a knee to chest stretch, a figure 4 stretch and a bilateral double knee stretch, and hold these stretches 3 times for 15 seconds each. The muscle tightness that you sustain from the continuous bending and rotation will loosen up. If you do have any pain it is recommended that you do 15 minutes of ice on the injured area for at least 3-4 times a day to reduce any type of spasms. Again, if the pain continues for more than 24-48 hours, and simple remedies have failed it is important for you to go seek a medical professional.
Lastly, another concern that I have for the fall is raking wet leaves. When raking wet leaves, slips and falls are also another concern, and proper shoe wear is something that needs to be considered. Make sure that your shoe wear has a good grip and can be utilized on wet surfaces.