Raking Leaves Without Hurting Your Back

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Dr. Kaixuan Liu with Atlantic Spine Center explains how a colorful seasonal chore can cause back injuries and offers tips for prevention.

Dr. Kaixuan Liu

With careful thought and measured movement, you can prevent injuries that might last longer than an afternoon raking the yard.

For many the fall is a welcomed season, a break away from the scorching heat and humidity of the summer. It is a beautiful time of year as changing leaves color trees in rainbows of yellow, orange, and red. But as nature takes its course, the leaves soon fall making mountains of dry leaves to be raked away. Raking those leaves – a strenuous job you either love or hate – doesn’t have to lead to back injuries, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.

About 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. But this staggering number makes some sense when you consider the body movements involved with the chore, Dr. Liu says.

“Some call raking leaves fall’s most taxing task,” says Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. “It 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. With careful thought and measured movement, you can prevent injuries that might last longer than an afternoon raking the yard. ”

Tips to avoid raking-related back strain
The good news, Dr. Liu says, is there are countless ways to continue to enjoy the leaf-crunching, color-filled activity of raking without ending up moaning in pain afterwards. His tips to prevent raking-related back injuries include:

  • Stretch: Just like you’d stretch your back, leg and shoulder muscles before a friendly football game – another popular fall activity – take time to do so before a leaf-raking session. Concentrate on your upper and lower back areas, arms, neck and legs. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds, Dr. Liu suggests.
  • Avoid twisting: Instead of planting your feet on the ground while raking and twisting in all directions with your back, continue to move your feet into different surrounding areas. “Let your hips and feet do some of the work,” Dr. Liu says.
  • Align your spine: Staying hunched over while raking strains lower back muscles, Dr. Liu notes. Instead, keep legs shoulder-width apart and bend knees slightly. Stand straight up often to rest the lower back.
  • Right-size your rake: Tools are sold in varying sizes, and your rake should be properly sized for your height and strength.
  • Pick the best shoes for the job: Don’t just kick on the closest pair of shoes before heading out to rake, Dr. Liu advises. Wear shoes with skid-resistant soles to minimize the risk of slipping (especially if leaves are damp) or falling.
  • Bend at the knees: Picking up leaf piles (or dragging a tarp full of them) requires a lot of strength. Be sure to bend your knees while disposing of leaves, rather than letting your back bear the brunt of the movement and weight, Dr. Liu says.
  • Take a break: Treat raking like any other form of vigorous exercise – meaning you should take a break every 15 to 30 minutes, Dr. Liu recommends. “This tip is especially important for those ‘weekend warriors’ who don’t exercise regularly,” he adds. “Better to finish the job a little more slowly than have to abandon the leaves entirely because you’ve hurt your back.”
  • One last thing: When you’re done raking and hauling leaves for the day, take a few moments to gently stretch muscles one last time. “At least when you hit the couch to watch the big game, you’ll have taken care of your muscles,” Dr. Liu says. “This can go a long way toward preventing further muscle strain in your back.”    

But what if all your prevention efforts somehow fail? “If you experience any continuing back pain 24 to 48 hours after leaf-raking, make sure to place ice on the affected areas for 20 minutes,” Dr. Liu suggests. “However, if the pain persists for longer than a few days or is severe, it’s best to see a doctor to properly diagnose and treat the problem. Raking leaves shouldn’t become a pesky chore that plagues you with lingering back pain.”

Atlantic Spine Center is a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with several locations in NJ and NYC. http://www.atlanticspinecenter.com, http://www.atlanticspinecenter.nyc

Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery at Atlantic Spine Center.

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Melissa Chefec
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