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Don't let accidents happen

With summer rains, garden tasks increase faster than the grass can grow. As a result, the rush to complete them means accidents are bound to happen.

"Most injuries are cuts to the hands or feet from hedge clippers or mowing blades on lawn mowers," says Dr. David Nateman, medical director of the Baptist Hospital Emergency Department in Kendall.

"You'd be surprised that people have a tendency to stick their hands under a running mower."

The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons warns about the dangerous "toe-away zone" near a power mower. Mowers injure approximately 25,000 people each year. Nateman attests to the cautionary tale:

"The first patient I had as an intern was a gentleman who had cut his foot with a lawn mower," Nateman says. "The injury was not that bad, but he wasn't current on his tetanus shots and he ended up dying."

Tetanus infection causes headaches and spasms of the jaw muscles, which spread to the necks, arms, legs and stomach. Convulsions can be severe. The infection may require weeks of intensive hospital care, and as Nateman found, may end with death.

So before launching into gardening, make sure your tetanus shots are up to date. Keep children away from the lawn while it's being mowed, and always wear hard-toed shoes (not flip-flops or sneakers).

If you have a slope in your lawn, mow across it, not up and down, which can cause you to lose control of the mower.

Rocks thrown by mowers are like bullets, so before you begin cutting the grass, clean up anything that can be shredded and/or shot by the blades spinning at about 3,000 revolutions per minute.

Other injuries that happen frequently during gardening are due to falls from ladders. Nateman says, "I recommend people not to go up on ladders with chain saws or sharp objects. Hire someone."

People cut themselves as they fall, he said. Seldom do gardeners cut off a whole leg with a chain saw, but "you'll see finger amputations or they'll get a cut in the leg."

Gardening is notorious for causing muscle injuries _ especially among the weekend warrior crowd.

"Warm-up exercises are a good idea," says Nateman.

CTI, a private physical therapy office in Pennsylvania, has suggestions for avoiding garden injuries on its Internet site,

Physical therapist Carole Galletta says the suggestions offered are "positions we encourage people to stay out of during gardening.

"One is the forward bend, stooping over, these are stressful for the lower back. So stand up and bend backward to take the back out of that position during the course of gardening."

When muscles are strained, their natural response is to tighten up and prevent moving into a range that could cause more injury, she said. When that happens, stop and put ice on the area if swelling occurs. "If it doesn't subside within a few days, call a health professional _ whether it's a physical therapist or your family doctor (or chiropractor) _ to make sure it's not a more serious problem."

For muscle soreness or strains without swelling, use a heating pad, take a hot shower or get in the hot tub.

Learn to lift property so you don't strain your back. Lift with your legs. The leg muscles are far bigger than the lower back muscles, so bend at the knees, and lift from the area covered by the span of you feet, advise therapists.

Pull heavy bags of fertilizer and soil in carts or wheelbarrows, rather than lifting and carrying them.

Use ergonomic tools and tools with fat grips. Extended hand rakes, hand shovels and trowels with arm fittings are designed to keep your arm straight and avoid wrist injury. These and ratchet pruners help arthritic hands but also can help you avoid hand and wrist strain. Repetitive wrist and arm injuries can occur from gardening as well as typing.

"Don't wait until you have arthritis to use ergonomically designed tools to garden less stressfully," Galletta said.

Use knee pads when weeding if you have to get on your hands and knees, and wear gloves to protect you from blisters as well as bites. Gloves also may save you from reaching into poison ivy or other plants that can cause allergic reactions, such as oyster plants or wandering jew.

"Know your plants," says Nateman. "And if exposed to poisonous or allergy-causing plants and you are itching, try not to (scratch the) itch. You will spread it from your hands to the rest of your body. Wash with soap and water, and go to an urgent care facility."

Above all, listen to signals from your body.

"Pay attention to muscles as well as the cardiovascular system," Galletta said. "You can fatigue the system."

If short of breath, dizzy, perspiring excessively or not at all, these are symptoms of cardiovascular stress, "so get out of the sun and take a break," Galletta said.

Reapply your sunscreen on a break, drink water, perhaps change a soaked T-shirt, and you are ready to go back to work.