How to help your shoulders survive another strenuous gardening season


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Wednesday, Jun. 03 2015, 3:18 PM EDT

Last updated Thursday, Jun. 04 2015, 12:00 AM EDT


As a chiropractor, I often treat shoulders that have been injured in the gym, on the baseball diamond or in the pool. But there’s another place where this common injury often occurs: the garden.

Take Scott, for example. After filling 27 yard waste bags, he used an axe to help remove the remaining roots of a dead Balsam Fir and wound up in my office with a sharp, burning pain in his shoulder, unable to lift his arm. “The property looks fantastic but I really paid for it,” he said.

Athletes must take appropriate steps with their training to avoid shoulder injuries. The same is true for gardeners and general weekend “do-it-yourselfers.”

It is a good idea to think of yourself as an athlete when working around the house. Approach yard maintenance like a sport, even if you don’t have the same fan support.

Here are some tips to keep your shoulder strong this season and keep you gardening at your best.

Hire a coach, not a gardener

Movement is medicine. Getting active in the yard is a great way to stay in shape. Just manage the risk. Have your postural tendencies and current physical abilities evaluated by a health professional trained in biomechanics and injury prevention.

Think of this clinician as your coach. Improving your performance begins with developing a specific injury-prevention program unique to your health goals and to-do-list. The goal of this assessment is to identify any aberrant movement patterns and correct any imbalance prior to injury.

Prepare like an athlete

A good coach will arm you with the tools required to avoid injury. Putting the recommended training program into practice is up to you. The program should be low-tech and appropriately set to your current ability.

When it comes to the shoulder, I tell my patients to think of the ball and socket joint like a golf ball sitting on a golf tee. I have heard other clinicians compare the joint to a seal balancing a ball on its nose.

The shoulder complex is actually made up of four joints: the glenohumeral joint (the ball and socket), the sternoclavicular joint (between the sternum and the collar bone); the acromioclavicular joint (between the collar bone and the point of the shoulder, called the acromion) and the scapulothoracic joint (junction between the shoulder blade and the rib cage).

The co-ordinated motion of these four joints must rely heavily on the balance, strength and control of muscles, ligaments, capsule and labrum (cartilage) to function properly.

An injury-prevention program will address the function of each of the above. Specific attention should be applied to both the rotator cuff and scapular-stabilizing muscles.

Warm up/cool down

Allow time before and after working in the yard to stretch. If you are starting in the yard first thing on a Saturday morning and haven’t had a chance to warm up, go for a walk around the block first. Don’t rush the stretch or stretch cold. Stretch slowly, gently and smoothly. Stretch only to the point where you feel mild tension in the target muscle. Hold each stretch for 15-20 seconds.

Check your posture first

When active in the yard, pay attention to the position of your scapulae, aka your shoulder blades. Their proper position is critical to shoulder function. They and the 17 muscles around them are the foundation of your shoulders and the base of every arm movement. In virtually every shoulder injury, there is also dysfunction at the scapulae.

Ordinary lifestyle factors and common activities in the garden can create imbalances in the scapulae that cause them to function improperly. This can lead to shoulder problems such as bursitis, tendinitis and impingement syndromes. Add in repetitive overhead work and/or lifting loads at a distance from the body and the shoulder can easily be compromised.

Talk to your coach about learning how to set your scapulae in neutral position and proper lifting. Cycle through different tasks in the yard that keep your body moving in different positions. Move your feet and avoid positions that place you at the limits of your range of motion.

Bottom line

There is perhaps no joint in the human body as complex as the shoulder. Built for mobility, it has the greatest range of motion of any joint in the body. Respect the biomechanical limits of the joint and you’ll be gardening for years to come.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Dwight Chapin, B.Sc(H)., D.C., is the clinic director of High Point Wellness Centre in Mississauga (, team chiropractor for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and on-site clinician for employees of The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter @HighPtWellness.