Disaster struck on Wednesday 9th of June in Emerald and the surrounding Dandenongs, and in fact large parts of Victoria and New South Wales. This has caused significant clean up effort, with hundreds of trees falling across roads, houses, power-lines and fences. Predictably, this has lead to a spike in Back Pain, but is it all to do with heavy lifting?

Many of those who have followed my blogs have read some discussion about gardening related injury, probably because I work in Emerald where most residents have a large garden and are surrounded by trees. Due to this (even when we’re not having ferocious storms and disaster) the physical load on many residents can be intense. It’s not unusual to spend 5-6 hours on a Saturday, or Sunday, or both, doing heavy pruning, mulching, chainsawing or digging. Currently, for some, this is more like 10 hours per day, and often much, much heavier lifting than they are used to doing day to day. 

Disaster as tree falls through roof


Physical activity of this sort isn’t bad for you! Lifting heavy things repetitively has not been shown to increase the chance of hurting your back. The studies that suggested this were done using pig spines that had been dissected out of bodies, put into a jig, and then rocked back and forth until the disc failed, which in most cases took thousands of repeated cycles of loaded flexion. The problem with this data is that it doesn’t model human experience well. 

  • We’re not pigs, and we’re not dead (living tissue adapts to load)
  • our spines don’t exist in isolation, they are surrounded by big thick strong muscles.
  • We never do thousands of cycles of loaded flexion at once. At most a couple of hundred, then we sleep, rest and recover, making our muscles stronger and discs thicker

Studies of occupations in which people do this type of heavy lifting all day every day show that they have no more frequency of back pain than people who do more sedentary jobs.

Then why are we having a sudden spate of call from people who have sore back after cutting up trees and cleaning following disaster?

The answer lies in the volume of current workload compared to normal. If your system is not used to doing hours of heavy loaded flexion, then you spend several days doing exactly that, you’re likely to end up with sore backs, hips and shoulders. In the same way, if you’re not used to running, and you went out and did it for 8-10 hours a day for several days in a row, you’d get really sore achilles, knees, and back.

Using chainsaw to clean up fallen trees

The critical thing is not to be too worried about what you’ve done to yourself, and under most circumstances the problem will sort itself out within two to four weeks, just by staying active, possibly taking some anti-inflammatory medication or pain relief if necessary. 

How do you know then, if it’s a serious injury? Surely some back injuries are bad. They certainly feel bad. When a medical professional assesses you, they’re looking for “red flags”. These are signs of a serious problem and need investigation. These are typically numbness in the perineum (saddle / groin region), inability to feel when you need the toilet, or actual episodes of incontence or urinary retention, trauma (with obvious bruising or swelling), or unremitting pain (where there is no position that relieves it).

Should any of these things be happen, please come and see a physiotherapist. If you have a sore back and feel some treatment would help loosen it up and get you moving more quickly, we’re here for that too, as well as advice on exercises that can get you back to strength in no time.

Consider these tips from a “Tip of the day” that I posted in April 2013! It discusses autumn leaves falling, but it is just as relevant when it is messmate branches and trees falling . . .

As the Autumn leaves start falling, stay conscious of good gardening practices;

  1. Change your front foot often when you’re raking
    Break up the job into sections and have regular rests
    Don’t fill up the bin/barrow too much
    Wet leaves are SLIPPERY, take care when walking on them
    Start gently and build up pace as you warm up, don’t do the heaviest jobs first
    Ask yourself if the WHOLE garden has to be pruned in one day?

We hope you’re all ok out there, knowing that many of you are not. Australians are resilient folk but the conditions in our beautiful country do pose us some serious risks at times.