The physical demands of landscaping and gardening can be “backbreaking”. The lifting, bending, and twisting involved in everyday work results in frustrating injuries to the back all too frequently.

Back pain is responsible for more disability, work loss, and job changes than any other physical malady affecting the manual labor work force in such fields as landscaping and gardening. The potential for production loss and financial liability as a consequence of this problem is staggering. It is our hope that you will find this information helpful in understanding the proper back care essential to preventing such injuries.

The human spine is a truly remarkable structure able to withstand tremendous forces yet also flexible enough to nearly bend in half. Unfortunately the back is also one of the most vulnerable areas of the human body and very prone to injury. In fact it is estimated that 70%- 80% of the world’s population suffers disabling at some time in their lives. The highest incidence of initial back problems occurs in adults aged 20-40 years. This is the population most involved in the heavy lifting and strenuous muscular effort which results in such terrific stresses on the back. As many as one quarter of those experiencing their first significant episode of back pain will have recurring problems.

Structure of the Back

The back is made up of several different types of tissues all of which contribute to the stability and flexibility of the back. Any of these structures may become injured. Therefore, a brief description of the anatomy of the human back may be helpful in understanding the many different diagnoses made about the spine.

The spine consists of 33 stacked bones called the vertebral column. Each of these bones is separated by intervertebral discs which serve as shock absorbers. Ligaments firmly fasten the vertebrae and discs together providing stability to the spine, yet at the same time allowing for flexibility. Injury to a ligament is referred to as a sprain. Bony projections from the vertebrae form a protective canal within which the spinal cord lies and also serve as points of attachment for muscles and ribs. The large “erector spinae” muscles in the lower back not only allow us to stand with erect posture, but also play a significant role in low back strains. Spinal nerves originating from the spinal cord exit through small openings between each vertebrae. These nerve roots are common sources of pain as they are frequently compressed, pinched, or irritated by bulging discs or tight muscles. With this anatomy in mind it is easy to understand why injury or abnormal mechanical stresses on these structures can result in disabling back pain.

In order to prevent back injuries we must remember that motion is the key to function. To ensure full motion in the joints of the spine, proper biomechanics are essential. Emphasis should be placed on good posture when sitting, standing, or moving. A commitment to proper conditioning through strength and flexibility must also be undertaken. Strength and flexibility should include not only the back and neck, but the muscles of the abdomen and hip as well. The abdominal muscles are of particular importance as they act to minimize the profound stresses that are placed on the spine. If an injury to the back does occur, an adequate period of rest followed by gentle flexibility and stretching exercises should precede strengthening exercises as well as a return to normal gardening and landscaping activities. Any severe back pain or radiation of pain into the legs requires an evaluation by a physician to investigate the extent of the injury to the many vital structures that have been described.

Prevention is the best treatment for back problems. Gardening and landscaping are strenuous activities that require a healthy back. Make a commitment now to learning and practicing proper posture and lifting techniques. Taking the time to condition the body through strength and flexibility will minimize the chances of you or one of your employees suffering a painful or disabling back injury.

In our next column we will offer a specific instructional program for proper back care. It will include the do’s and don’ts of posture and lifting. It will outline a series of safe and reliable back exercises stressing flexibility to help prevent those nagging back injuries.