With the weather getting warmer, millions of people will be playing sports or getting out in the garden. However, some may find their efforts thwarted by back pain, which can develop if they jump into things and exert themselves too quickly. The good news is that whether you are gardening or engaging in sports, there are ways you can minimize the chances of getting back pain, and ways to manage back pain if it does develop.

"Over 80% of people will have low back pain at some point during life, although most of them fortunately recover on their own." explains Dr. David Wang, a specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at The Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine, located in McLean, VA. "When it comes to gardening and back pain, your body may need a few weeks after the long winter to become accustomed again to the physical stresses of gardening, such as squatting, twisting, lifting and digging."

Precautions you can take to limit back pain when gardening include:

- Begin slowly, rather than trying to do too much in one session. Split larger gardening projects into several shorter sessions while you build your stamina.

- Think of it like other forms of physical activity, and always warm up before you begin with 10-20 repetitions of gentle exercises like standing hip circles, toe touches, back bends, and leg lifts. Again, gentle is the key!

- Pay attention to your body position when lifting heavy objects, such as planters and bags of fertilizer. Keep the item close to your body, and bend your knees (squat) so that you can keep your back as vertical as possible when you pick up the object, allowing you to lift with the leg muscles rather than straining the back muscles.

- Be sure to take breaks and to change your position every 15 minutes or so, especially if you are kneeling, squatting, or sitting in a bent or twisted position.

- Invest in good, long-handled gardening tools, which will help minimize the amount of back bending that you need to do.

- If back pain is a consistent problem, consider creating raised garden beds, which will also help to reduce the amount of bending that is needed.

When it comes to minimizing back pain when playing sports, much of the same advice holds true.

- It is important to always warm up, avoid over-exerting muscles, use proper equipment, , and take breaks to give your body time to rest.

- If your muscles are not very flexible, it is also important to stretch after activity, holding each stretch for 30 seconds, to gradually improve your flexibility and reduce your risk of injury.

- Consider working with a physical therapist or highly-qualified and experienced personal trainer for several weeks before starting the sports season. This will allow you to properly prepare and condition your body for sports-specific activities.

Although most episodes of back pain get better on their own, there are certain situations where you should see a physician. These include pain that is progressively worsening or lasts longer than three weeks, back pain accompanied by problems with your balance or bladder/bowel function, or back pain accompanied by leg pain, numbness and/or weakness. If you do end up requiring medical care, it is important to realize that not all back pain is the same, and it can actually be quite complex. "Several different factors may be contributing to your symptoms, including ligaments, tendons and mechanical alignment, and not just the discs, joints and nerves which are sometimes inappropriately blamed for back and leg pain," states Dr. Wang. "As such, be sure to see a specialist who has knowledge about a wide range of diagnoses and treatments, both surgical and non-surgical, and who focuses on treating the whole person and not just the symptoms."

The Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine

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