Tips for Raking Leaves this Fall
When Dr. Reinecke travels for conferences and chiropractic conventions, fellow doctors from places like Florida or California will often remark, “Oh, you’re from South Dakota, I bet you see a lot of patients with snow-shoveling injuries!” And while we do treat people for pain and injures resulting from shoveling snow during winter, we actually see more patients in the autumn who’ve sustained injuries as the result of raking leaves and other fall yard cleanup chores. I believe this is partly due to the fact that most people deem themselves “fit enough” to rake leaves (versus shovel snow), regardless of their physical fitness level. There’s a misconception that raking leaves is less physically demanding than shoveling snow. Though perhaps the cold winter temperatures make shoveling seem like the more daunting of the two tasks (can we say “wind chill factor”?), raking leaves can be just as physically demanding, if not more so. Even if you use your lawnmower to mulch up dead leaves rather than raking, there is still the potential for injury while bagging and hauling leaves. Utilizing a mower to clean up leaves requires that you bend over repeatedly in order to empty and reattach the lawnmower bag, and to continually re-start the mower. This repetitive movement can take a toll on your back and shoulders. So whether you rake leaves manually or utilize a lawnmower for the project, I recommend the following guidelines to help you and your loved ones avoid injury this season as you tackle your yard cleanup.
1. Enlist help. Cleaning up leaves is a big project. If possible, don’t try to do it alone. Recruit family or friends to help (hint: enticing them with hot chocolate or apple cider might further your cause).
2. Break it down. If you have a big yard, break up the area into sections; don’t try to do the entire yard at once or even all in one day.
3. Switch sides. In the case of using a lawnmower, try alternating the side of your body you bend to approach mower bag. Bend to your left one time, and to your right the next. Avoid favoring one side of your body to do all the bending and lifting activities required; instead utilize both sides.
4. Alternate your grip. While raking leaves, make sure to switch your hands and grip placement on the rake throughout the task. Most of us hold and maneuver a rake according to whether we’re left- or right-handed. Individuals who are right-handed, for example, typically automatically place their left hand above their right when gripping the rake handle. By switching this hand placement throughout the chore and holding the rake in a way that is the opposite of what feels natural to you, (right over left in this example ) you’ll be activating and utilizing different muscles. That will benefit your entire body. The number one reason people injure themselves raking leaves is that their stronger muscles out work and over power there weaker muscles.This can cause the spine to move too far in one direction, resulting in pain either immediately or the following day. The more unnatural it feels to hold the rake with your opposite hand placement, the more therapeutic it actually is for you! That's because you are strengthening the weak muscles in your back.
5. More is less, less is more. Though it may seem more efficient to fill leaf bags to maximum capacity and end up with fewer bags total, this can actually lead to unnecessary muscle strain or injury, particularly if the leaves are wet. When bagging wet leaves, which are four to five times heavier than dry leaves, don’t fill the bags completely to the top. It’s better to lift more bags that weigh less than to strain your muscles by trying to lift fewer but much heavier bags.
6. Gauge your distance. If you have to move bags across the yard or driveway in order to load them up to haul, use a wagon or tarp to do so, rather than lifting and carrying each individual bag over any distance. And again, enlist the help of others. If you do have to carry bags, particularly those holding wet leaves, make sure you carry them with center of mass close to the center of your body. And always bend your knees and use both your legs and arms to lift; do not try to bend at the waist and lift with your arms, as this can lead to serious back injury.
7. Warm up. Sports players often warm up before they begin playing, to avoid injuring cold or tight muscles. The same logic applies to raking leaves. If it’s chilly outside, it’s better to over- dress for the cold temperature (and have the option to shed layers as you work and become warmer) than to under-dress thinking that you’ll warm up once you get going. When you’re chilled, your muscles are tensed, and this sets the stage for injury. So make sure your body and muscles are warm before you begin the task at hand.
Our bodies aren’t accustomed to the repetitive motion required to rake leaves. The most common leaf-raking injury is muscle strain between the shoulder blades or in the ribs. Often this starts off as a tight feeling in the muscles, and develops into a sharp pain that is aggravated when you move your body. More serious injuries include low back strains or sprains caused by lifting bags that are too heavy. If you’ve experienced this type of injury in the past, or you develop it while raking your yard during the next few weeks, our team at Reinecke Chiropractic can help. We’ll evaluate you and determine the underlying problem that needs to be addressed. A simple adjustment can help you feel better immediately, or if inflammation is a problem, our ARP Wave Neurotherapy will can help by reducing healing time by half. It is OK to expect stiff muscles for a day or two, but anything sore or aching after three days deserves a call. Stay safe, and happy raking!