Gardening hazards and how to avoid them

Avoid overdoing garden work to prevent sore back
Eileen Boxall tends to her backyard garden in Toronto on Sunday, May 25, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Jesse Johnston

TORONTO – For anyone who loves to get down and dirty in the garden, it’s that time of year for heading outdoors to dig and weed and mow and plant, to wake up that little bit of Eden after months of winter slumber.

But beware: as idyllic as that outdoor oasis may seem, there are potential health hazards that can trip up the overzealous or unwary backyard horticulturalist.

Chief among them is overtaxing the body’s muscles, especially those in the back, by trying to do too many tasks for too long a period, leading to strains and sprains, says chiropractor Kristina Peterson.

READ MORE: Why the harsh winter is costing gardeners time and money

“One of the things I’m often reminding my patients of is that gardening is like any other kind of exercise, and often people don’t adequately prepare,” says Peterson, who practises at the Jessiman Chiropractic Clinic in Thunder Bay, Ont.

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“So I always tell them before you head outside to do some gardening or raking or what have you, make sure your body is ready and make sure you have the right equipment to do the tasks at hand.”

Before rushing out to the garden, homeowners should go for a short walk to warm up muscles and get the heart rate slightly elevated, just as one would do prior to starting any exercise routine, she advises. That should be followed by a set of gentle stretches that target the back, leg and arm muscles.

“That way you’re less likely to strain your muscles and get yourself into trouble,” says Peterson, president of the Ontario Chiropractic Association.

To limber up the back, from a standing position, gently bend forward towards the toes. That not only stretches the muscles of the lower back, but also the hamstrings in the back of the legs. Hold the stretch for about 20 seconds, repeating it a few times. This forward bend can also be done while seated.

“Another good stretch is for your quadricep muscles in the thighs,” she says. While holding onto a fence or tree, for example, grab the ankle or pant leg and pull the lower leg up towards the buttocks, holding the position for about 20 seconds. Repeat two or three times on each side.

Arms and hands also should be loosened up before picking up a trowel or rake. “Were doing a lot of gripping and holding and twisting, and your forearms and wrists can really get tight and sore,” says Peterson, who recommends these exercises to prepare for gardening tasks:

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Standing with both arms elevated in front of the body, let the fingers of one hand dangle towards the ground. “Take the other hand and grab the back of the first hand and gently pull it towards you. Feel the stretch in the top of the forearm.”

Next, point the fingers of the same hand towards the sky and pull the fingers back towards the body to stretch the bottom of forearm. Repeat both movements two or three times with each hand.

While performing gardening tasks, it’s important to take a break every 30 to 45 minutes, to drink some water and maybe do a few more stretches, Peterson suggests.

“One of the other things that’s really useful is to multitask. So let’s say you have raking, some digging and some planting to do and you need to unload some soil. Do each of those in little bits and pieces. Don’t spend an entire hour just digging. Maybe do it for 20 minutes or a half-hour and then switch and put some plants in the ground. Do that for a little bit and then switch and maybe do a little bit of raking, so your body is always in motion, it doesn’t get stuck in one spot for a long period of time.

“So multitasking and utilizing your body in multiple different ways – walk a little, squat a little, kneel a little – so you’re continually altering your position and not overtaxing any one part.”

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And, stresses Peterson, don’t be a “weekend warrior” and try to accomplish all your gardening tasks in a single day.

That’s a lesson Eileen Boxall was forced to take to heart after a marathon gardening session aggravated the muscles in her lower back, an area where she has osteoporosis.

“I was generally OK until last year, and now it’s gotten worse,” says the east-end Toronto homeowner, whose main backyard garden is filled with herbs and vegetables. “Last year when I tried to weed and trim this cedar hedge I have – stuff I’ve always done before – I did it for too long in the day and then it was just really sore for about three, four days.”

While Boxall hasn’t given up gardening completely – just being among the plants makes her feel happy and “grounded” – the almost-60-year-old relies on her husband to do the heavier work and limits how much she toils and for how long.

“I just know now I need to shorten the time. Even though I have the energy, I have to consciously say: ‘OK, just do this little bit here, and that’s it.’ And then the next day I can do a little bit more.”

Peterson suggests gardeners can use a kneeling pad – there are also low-to-the-ground seats if sore, creaky knees are an issue – and ergonomically designed tools with easy-to-grip, padded handles that help prevent muscle cramps and strains in the arms and hands. Footwear should be sturdy and supportive, not falling-apart sneakers that have been repurposed as “gardening shoes.”

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If overdoing it in the garden results in a sore back, legs or arms, Peterson suggests resting and icing the area to quiet down any inflammation. Gentle stretching can also ease pain and promote healing. If a strain hasn’t improved in a couple of days, make an appointment with a chiropractor or physiotherapist, she says.

Some garden-related hazards aren’t above ground – but in it.

Most people are aware that stepping on a rusty nail or cutting themselves with a rusty tool can put them at risk for tetanus, a bacterial disease whose symptoms gave rise to its more colloquial name, lockjaw.

But the tetanus bacterium, known formally as Clostridium tetani, lives in the dirt, dust and soil all around us, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says on its website. The microbe also can be transmitted through animal bites.

The disease is caused by neurotoxic spores produced by the bacteria, which travel through the nerves of the muscles, causing extreme pain and muscle spasms that can be so intense, they break bones. The jaw muscles are the first to be affected, becoming stiff and locked. Tetanus can cause difficulties breathing and swallowing, and ultimately lead to seizures and death.

During the 1920s and ’30s, 40 to 50 Canadians died of tetanus each year. But today, thanks to childhood immunization programs that provide both an initial shot and booster, cases of tetanus have fallen dramatically. Between 1980 and 2008, there were an average of four cases annually, with those aged 60 and under accounting for almost half of them. Since 1980, only five tetanus deaths have been reported, the last of them in 1997.

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Still, because tetanus is present in the soil, anyone who gardens is potentially at risk. While wearing garden gloves may be somewhat protective, the best defence is childhood immunization, followed by adult booster shots every 10 years from about the mid-teens onwards, says PHAC.

Garden soil can also harbour another nasty customer – parasitic roundworm eggs deposited in the feces of raccoons.

READ MORE: Tips to get rid of unwanted pests in your garden

Raccoons tend to defecate in the same place over and over, picking an area on a deck, fence rail or the crotch of a tree for their latrine. Although concentrated in one spot, the animals’ poop can still wash down into the garden, depositing roundworm eggs in the soil.

If accidentally ingested – young children are especially at risk – the parasite eggs can hatch in the intestines and migrate to the brain, where they can cause permanent neurological damage and even death.

“It is quite a rare disease in people, but sadly many of the cases that have been described in the medical literature involved children,” says veterinary pathologist Doug Campbell, noting that young kids are more apt to stick objects or dirty fingers in their mouths.

In 2008, a 14-month-old Hamilton boy was left with profound physical and neurologic impairments, including blindness and epilepsy, after he somehow ingested roundworm eggs. Doctors who treated the toddler said it appeared the eggs might have been tracked into the home from the porch or the yard, where his parents reported having seen “numerous” raccoons.

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When cleaning up raccoon feces, public health agencies say gloves and a face mask should be worn; the feces should be burned, buried or double bagged and put in garbage intended for a landfill, not for composting; and contaminated areas such as decks and patios should be treated with boiling water, as other disinfectants have no effect.

Campbell, who works for the Canadian Co-operative Wildlife Health Centre at the University of Guelph, says even though cases of roundworm infection are rare, “the bad news is that it is a horrible thing if anyone should contract it.”

“It’s one thing that people should be cautious about because raccoons are so common in urban and suburban areas in Canada and a substantial proportion of them are probably infected with roundworm.”

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