Shoulder pain when gardening
Gardening is a popular pastime that occurs year-round. It is typically intense during early spring and late autumn or fall. Jobs such as clipping, raking, mowing, and weeding require a range of movement that rival a gymnast’s floor routine. As such, gardening is physically challenging and a great form of ‘green exercise.’ However, shoulder pain when gardening is a common complaint.
Are you carrying extra weight on your shoulders?
Prior to springtime, our bodies (and tools) often become ‘rusty’ during a winter of gardening-dormancy. When spring arrives, an abrupt flurry of weekend gardening activity can leave our bodies hurting!
The physical movements required for gardening places strain on our muscles, ligaments and joints. And the strain is exacerbated when we haven’t moved our bodies for some time in ways that gardening requires. This can lead to aches and pains – or Gardener’s Springtime Syndrome. While garden-related injuries may occur in many areas of the body, shoulder discomfort frequently arises. This condition is typically due to inadequate strength in the muscles around the shoulder and loading the shoulders and neck above their capabilities. Hence, it’s not unusual to experience shoulder pain when gardening.
Connecting the dots between the shoulder and neck
In a nutshell, our shoulders connect our upper arms to our torso. Shoulder physiology is an intricate organization of three bones, almost a dozen muscles and numerous tendons and ligaments. The way in which these components connect allows us to move our arms in just about every direction. However, this enhanced flexibility comes at a cost: the shoulder is prone to injury.
When our muscles become fatigued, they often recruit neighbouring muscles to ‘share the load.’ In the case of our shoulder, our arm, neck, and other supporting muscles accommodate, pick up the slack and experience additional loading. This results in pain in those supporting structures in particular the neck which is what I see in the clinic. Activities such as repetitive clipping and pruning at or above shoulder height and prolonged postures while stabilizing can place undue stress on our arms and neck muscles, resulting in pain.
Are you up a gumtree?
As previously noted, shoulder pain when gardening is related to shoulder strength. And many of us experience a decline in shoulder strength with a lack of use and especially as we grow older. Waning of shoulder strength can be gradual and subtle, but not without small telltale signs. Yet awareness of this condition may only arise when you carry a heavy load of washing or a large bag of groceries that is more difficult than you remembered! Then again, you experience shoulder and neck pain after a demanding bout of springtime gardening.
Turn over a new leaf
As a physiotherapist, I often treat people who experience neck and shoulder pain when gardening. In many cases this is an avoidable situation. However, there are preventative habits that you can establish to sidestep these types of injuries.
Here are a few tips to make your gardening more enjoyable:
Warm up! Spend 10 minutes performing simple stretches for your spine, neck, and upper limbs.
Be body aware. If you begin to experience minor strain in part of your body, take a break. Repetitive movements or positioning are often the culprit of fatigue. You can stretch the strained body part, or switch to a different arm or leg to accomplish the gardening task. If you experience shoulder pain when gardening, then experiment with different ways to utilize or position your body.
Alternate gardening activities. Try breaking up the gardening tasks into 10-minute portions. Alternate between upper arm tasks and ground-level tasks (such as weeding). This reduces the overall and repetitive load being placed on the shoulders. And it will reduce the chance of the neck muscles and joints becoming victims to overuse and allow for recovery.
Improve your shoulder strength with exercises. There are a number of simple exercises that strengthen the shoulders and upper arms. Many of these exercises use your own body weight as a form of resistance. The videos below demonstrate the best way to perform these exercises.
- Stand up straight facing a wall.
- Take a step back and place the palms of your hands on the wall at shoulder height and slightly wider than your shoulders.
- Bend your elbows, taking your chest towards the wall. Keep your body in a straight line and tighten your buttocks and abdominals. Try to keep your head from poking forward.
- Return to the starting position by straightening your elbows, lifting your chest away from the wall.
You can progress to push-ups on the floor after you are comfortable with wall push-ups:
- Lie on your front face down with your hands on the floor shoulder width apart and your fingers facing forwards.
- Press up using your arms and shoulders, lifting your body up onto your toes, so that you have a straight line from your head to your feet. Keep your abdominals and core muscles tighten so you do not arch or sag your back.
- Bend your elbows, lowering your chest down towards the start, keeping your body completely straight.
- If this is too difficult, try starting with your knees on the floor and press-up from this position.
Here are other MyAge.fit blog posts that offer advice for building healthy habits while gardening:
- Are You Cultivating Tennis Elbow — in the Garden?
- Gardening and Helping Your Knees
- Is Your Back Shovel Ready?
- Gardening with Care for the Neck and Shoulders
Hope this helps your gardening experience!