Warm weather is here and that means it’s time for some spring cleaning!
Clearing, raking, lifting, digging, and pruning can often lead to pain and/or injury though, particularly after a long winter of inactivity. Symptoms of cramping, locking, swelling, burning, tingling, and general pain in the hands and/or arms are common as the gardening season starts up.
Some of the more common conditions we see include pain on the inside or outside of the elbow (commonly referred to as golfer’s or tennis elbow respectively). This can make gripping, twisting the arm, or carrying objects quite problematic. The difficulty comes from identifying where that pain comes from. The source of the pain can be related to an irritated tendon end of a muscle, one or more muscles themselves, and/or irritation of a nerve that runs through the area. Read our article on the Mystery of Tennis Elbow for more about this condition and how we treat it here.
Moving down the arm, wrist tendonitis and DeQuervain Syndrome (pain radiating from the outside thumb down the wrist and hand and sometimes the forearm) is also quite common. There are many tendons in the wrist and hand that are like ropey extensions of individual muscles. When they become irritated from repetitive gardening activities, they can become inflamed, causing tenderness, stiffness and pain.
Finally, pain in the palm and fingers is also quite prevalent among gardeners particularly due to the usage of hand tools such as shears. These conditions include trigger finger which is characterized by pain radiating down the finger and is often accompanied by snapping or locking of the digit. This is also likely caused by an aggravated and inflamed tendon. You can read more about these hand and wrist conditions here.
HOW TO AVOID GARDENING INJURIES
After a long winter, your body isn’t used to these specific movement patterns. Your physiological capacity contracts after an offseason of limited activity. When you work your body too long or too hard, you can surpass these limits and potentially cause pain and injury that takes you out of commission for weeks.
The biggest tip to prevent this is to start new activities gradually by breaking the project down into manageable chunks and allowing for adequate recovery. A gradual build up in use of unused or underused muscles and joints allows them to develop more strength and resilience to usage and activity.
To more safely build capacity and avoid injury, try the following tips:
- Schedule regular breaks for yourself, particularly if you are performing repetitive motions.
- Monitor the total number of hours in a day and the number of days in a row you garden.
- Regularly stretch to prevent pain and injury (see below for recommendations).
- Perform self-massage on sore forearms, palms and thumb.
- Wear proper gloves that have good grip and don’t impede your dexterity.
- Use ergonomic tools that reduce stress on muscles and joints.
Most importantly, be aware of what your body is telling you and address minor aches and pains before they develop into something worse. When you notice discomfort, that’s your cue to take a break for stretching, hydration, and rest. Here are a couple basic stretches to start you out:
Wrist Extensors and Wrist Flexor Stretches:
These wrist exercises can be completed multiple times a day as you garden to keep the muscles pliable and can help prevent both elbow and wrist pains.
Extensor: Hold your arm out straight, grasp the back of your hand with your opposite hand, and pull down until you feel a stretch through the back of the forearm.
Flexor: Hold your arm out straight, grasp your fingers with the opposite hand, and pull back until you feel a stretch through the front of the forearm.
Hold each exercise for about 30 seconds and repeat three times.
Tendon Glide Stretches:
Individuals with tightness/stiffness in their hands can also benefit from tendon gliding. This exercise helps improve tendon mobility with the goal of making it easier to grasp and maneuver your gardening hand tools.
Progress from the fingers in straight position, to hook fist, straight fist, tabletop, and finally straight fist. Repeat 20 times.
If problems persist, get help early! We have multiple physical therapists on staff who are experienced in diagnosing and handling hand, wrist, and arm conditions and can often reverse painful conditions, especially when addressed early. The goal is to avoid injury in the first case though, so be proactive: Make realistic gardening goals, planning time in for rest and stretching, so you can stay outside and active all summer long!