URI physical therapist offers advice on how to avoid holiday aches

KINGSTON, Dec. 4, 2012 — A mountain of snow is behaving badly on your front steps. You can grab a shovel and go at it like a frenzied ditch digger. Or you can heed the advice of University of Rhode Island physical therapist John McLinden: baby scoops, even if it takes all day.

Your back will thank you.

The holidays are upon us, and that means snowy mornings (cross fingers), marathon shopping trips, long hours on your feet baking mince pie, and perilous journeys up a ladder to trim the Blue Spruce that you cut down without wearing a back brace. Tsk. Tsk.

If you take precautions, you can avoid a trip to the emergency room or an unwanted afternoon in repose, says McLinden, a clinical assistant professor of physical therapy in the College of Human Science and Services.

“Let’s make a resolution to stay safe during the holiday season by being mindful of our bodies,” he says. “It can be a stressful time physically and emotionally, but your body doesn’t have to suffer. I’ve got tips to keep you fit.”

Cooking and baking are fun during mistletoe and menorah season, but also tough on the neck, shoulders and back. Standing for long hours, says McLinden, can create unbearable spasms that derail your day.

The kitchen counter should be level with your hips. McLinden suggests raising the counter’s height with a butcher block periodically to force changes in posture. Also, try standing on a rug or other padded surface, instead of a hard tile floor.

While cutting and mixing, he advises putting one foot on a small stepstool or on the edge of an open kitchen cabinet to shift weight off the lower back. Give each leg a turn in prop-up mode.

Holiday shopping can also be physically grueling. Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes. “Avoid the heels,” says McLinden. Leave your “beach bag” purse at home; it’s too heavy. A wallet will suffice.

Share the wealth. If you have four shopping bags, carry two in each hand. Do not lift “big ticket” items like TVs, pong-pong tables, or battery-operated Jeeps for toddlers. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.

If you do lift, use your knees and legs. Avoid bending at the waist. Always keep items close to your chest. “The farther away something gets from you,” says McLinden, “the more pressure there is on your lower back.”

Snow is pretty, but doesn’t melt magically after a morning cup of Joe. Shoveling injuries can be prevented with common sense. Don’t overload the shovel. Avoid twisting motions. Use an ergonomic shovel, with a bent shaft. Take breaks to keep from over exerting yourself. “It’s about pacing,” McLinden says.

If anxiety sets in at a holiday bash with boorish Uncle Harry from Kansas, McLinden recommends doing a few stretches in a quiet place: “Straight up, back down, stretch the hamstrings, and then do it again.”

Deep breathing, a long walk among the elms, and good posture also reduce stress, he says.

McLinden’s skills — and humor — are in demand on campus, where he runs the Physical Therapy clinic at Independence Square. He’s the go-to guy for many URI professors, students, and staff workers dealing with “postural issues.” Lower back pain is the most common ailment, caused mostly by sitting in front of a computer all day.

“I’m over 70, but I play basketball regularly,” says Alfred Killilea, professor emeritus of political science and a guard for MW12, a team of current and retired professors he plays with Mondays and Wednesdays at a Tootell gym. “It seems like our whole group visits John.”

Nancy Kelley, assistant dean of the College of Human Science and Services, went to see McLinden after both hips were replaced last year. Hundreds of squats later, she’s fully recovered, thanks to the clinic’s high-tech equipment and McLinden’s strength conditioning, gently implemented.

“He knows the absolute latest of what’s going on in the field,” she says. “He also has such a great way of dealing with people. He puts you at ease, so you don’t mind being there for an hour. In fact, you actually enjoy it.”

Laughter and music are encouraged and valued in McLinden’s clinic. “I am guaranteed a belly laugh every time I go in,” says Michaela Mooney, assistant dean in the College of Nursing. She’s been his patient since the mid-1990s, most recently after knee surgery.

“He treats everyone, no matter what age, gender or stature, with the same welcoming smile,” says Mooney. “There’s no one you could trust more. And there’s always great music playing.”

No, not “Jingle Bells.” He’s a Classic rock and Motown fan. His favorite tune during side shuffles across the exercise floor is “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by The Temptations.

For more information about a pain-free holiday, e-mail McLinden at elvis1122@aol.com or call him at 401-874-2006. He can also be reached through his business, Liberty Physical Therapy, at 401-722-0012.

Pictured above: John McLinden, clinical assistant professor of physical therapy at URI, and his patient, Michaela Mooney, assistant dean in the College of Nursing.

URI Marketing & Communications photo by Michael Salerno Photography.