April 18, 2024
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April 18, 2024
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Gardening 101: Taking Care of Your Hands

Many of us, myself included, while sequestered at home have taken up gardening for the first time as a leisure activity. However, it became quickly evident to many of us that gardening was harder work than we anticipated. We’ve got sore muscles, aching backs, and scratches and scrapes abound. In honor of Hand Therapy Week 2020, it seems appropriate this year to address how to avoid these aches and pains while gardening.

Stretching and Conditioning

Lots of muscles in your body are involved in gardening, and it’s easy to work up quite a sweat. It has been shown that even two-and-a-half hours spent gardening per week can reduce the risk for obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

Conditioning is an often-overlooked aspect to gardening, which is considered a moderately-intense physical activity. It’s important to strengthen your core, arms, hands and legs in preparation for gardening season. A good walk or run around the block will also help get your circulation going. Don’t forget to stretch out your body before getting down to the dirty work (pun intended). Stretch your fingers, wrists, forearms, shoulders, backs and legs prior to beginning.

Use the Right Tools

Using wide-handled tools can make a world of difference. Tools with padded handles, and spring-loaded pruners, can preserve your joints and prevent repetitive stress injuries. Try to avoid tools with built-in grooves for your fingers, as these are not ‘one-size-fits-all’ and may be ill-suited for your particular hand. A good way to figure out the best grip size for you is to make an “O” with the tips of the thumb and index finger and measure the diameter. Green Heron Tools (no affiliation) makes lightweight equipment that comes in multiple sizes for both right and left-handed gardeners. If you can, use larger tools that will allow you to exercise larger joints, like your elbow and shoulder, and will relieve stress from your smaller, weaker joints.

Keep your tools sharp and lubricated, and use the right tool for the job; don’t use a trowel to hack out a weed, grab the pruner.

Beware of Thorns

A seemingly innocuous thorn can lead to sporotrichosis, which is caused by the fungus, sporothrix. It can be found on rose thorns, twigs and soil. Also known as rose gardener’s disease, the fungus can enter the skin through a small cut or scrape and cause an infection. Cutaneous (skin) sporotrichosis starts out as a bump that appears where the fungus entered the skin, and is usually red, pink or purple. The bump will get larger and can look like an open sore, and additional bumps and sores can appear in the area.

Plant thorn arthritis can affect someone who has gotten pricked by a thorn in a finger joint. The joint will become swollen, red, stiff and painful. This non-infectious inflammation can even occur some time after the thorn has been removed. Plant thorn arthritis could require surgery to rectify.

An up-to-date tetanus vaccination is a must. A prick from a rusty pair of pruning shears can have dire consequences.

If you think you have an infection, be sure to contact a medical professional immediately.

Wear Gloves

Finding the best glove for you is important. A glove that is too small will limit motion and circulation, while a too-big glove will be unwieldy and difficult to use. Gloves need to protect your hands from chemicals, fertilizers, bacteria, fungus, thorns, blisters, bites and cuts. A glove with leather fingertips can help protect the ends of the fingers. Longer gloves are needed for reaching into thorny rose bushes. Otherwise, gloves that velcro securely at the wrist are helpful for keeping dangers out.

Body Mechanics

Work with your wrists in a neutral position as best as possible. Better grip strength will be achieved in this position or with a slightly extended wrist, and you will avoid soreness and fatigue. When bending the wrist downward, some grip strength will be lost and you will have to work harder. There are several tools that can be purchased that help with keeping the wrist in neutral for pruning and digging. Radiusgarden.com is a good site to purchase many of these tools (no affiliation).

Use larger arm muscles in place of the small finger muscles when carrying things like heavy pots. Do this by placing both hands underneath the object being carried and keeping the object close to your body. Don’t be lazy; make more trips if necessary, rather than carrying heavy loads all at once.

Shovel in your garden like you would shovel snow. Bend from the knees and hold the load close to your body. Don’t overreach with your shovel. If possible, use raised beds to garden instead of bending all the way down to ground level.

Avoid Repetitive Stress Injuries

Don’t try to do all the weeding and pruning at the same time. Squeezing hand tools like pruners repeatedly can lead to repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis. Repeatedly doing any motion in the garden for a long period can have detrimental effects on your body. Take time to drink some lemonade, enjoy your progress and smell the roses.

Allison Cohen OTR/L, CHT, is a certified hand therapist. She is Director of Hand Therapy at Sportscare Physical Therapy in Paramus, NJ. She can be reached at [email protected]. *Sportscare is currently seeing patients in person and via telehealth and is now working with many insurance plans.*

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