“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to not just feed the body but the soul” – Alfred Austin
Gardening is a meaningful activity for people across the lifespan. It can add beauty and nutrition as well as be an outlet for stress relief and a means of exercise. While it has many benefits, it can also be hard work for the muscles and joints of your hands and arms. Here are some tips and tricks that may help you reduce your risk for pain and increase your joy and productivity in the garden.
Good gardening tools can be especially helpful to reduce risk and pain associated with repetitive use injuries.
- Tools with built up handles can reduce the grip strength required to perform activities and protect your joints. Wide handled or ergonomic tools may also be available on the internet or in local shops.
- To build up the handles of your own tools, pipe insulation can be purchased at your local hardware store.
- Exercise caution when working with machines and avoid cutting toward your body.
- Place tools in a safe location after use to decrease likelihood of a trip or a fall.
- Ensure all machines and safety equipment are in proper working order.
- Set realistic expectations for the work that you need to get done and plan rest breaks.
- Try alternating between activities that work different muscle groups or joints.
- Take time to stand and stretch in between tasks.
- Take time to check in and listen to your body. Don’t push through pain during tasks. You can always come back to the job at a later time after stretching and resting your muscles and joints.
Stretches and Self-Care
Warm up before you start heavy manual labor by walking around the yard to increase circulation and prepare you for your work. Keep your body hydrated, drinking plenty of water, especially on hot days. Wear sunscreen to protect your skin. Try the following stretches before, during and after gardening:
Start with your elbow bent by your side with your wrist flexed. Slowly extend your elbow until you feel a stretch.
Place your palms together and lower them until you feel a stretch in your wrists. Make sure you keep your palms touching. Hold this stretch about 30 seconds.
- Hand and fingers
Hook your fingers like a “cat claw”. Repeat a couple of times. Separate your fingers. Open and close them a few times.
Use your arms to work within a two foot radius of your body. Keeping work close to your body helps reduce strain on your muscles. Use bigger muscles for heavier jobs (for example, when lifting heavy items, use your elbows rather than your wrist muscles). Lift heavier items such as potted plants or bags of compost from the bottom, with your palms facing the sky and your elbows bent. Consider using equipment such as a wheelbarrow to move heavy items around your yard.
Pinching and Grasping
Planning ahead can reduce the amount of forceful resistance you experience while digging. Try to perform digging activities after the ground has been softened by rain or watering. Avoid repetitive gripping and pinching as much as possible. Using gloves with silicone or rubber helps to reduce grip and pinch strength necessary to perform a task.
If you overdo it
If you find yourself in pain after spending time in the garden, consider ice or heat for relief from your discomfort in addition to stretching sore muscles. Apply ice during the acute stages of your pain-within 48 hours of injury. For pain that last longer than 48 hours or achy joints, try heat.
Follow up with your local hand therapist to explore further options for self-care in the garden including strength training, specific stretching, functional splinting, ergonomics and activity modification. Click here to see additional safety tips.
Finally, step back and acknowledge all the work you have done, and take time to enjoy and smell the flowers.
Hannah Leaman, OTR/L, OTD (writer) is an occupational therapist and a member of the American Society of Hand Therapists (ASHT). Stacy Hite, PT, DPT, CHT (contributor) is a certified hand therapist and a member of ASHT.