The Hazards of…Gardening?!

Ah, Spring!  With the arrival of warmer temperatures, gardeners across the country are back outside and nurturing their gardens once again. Most of us think of gardening as a relaxing and enjoyable activity – and of course, it usually is – but sometimes, gardening can be hazardous without proper precaution, as repetitive stress injuries, tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can develop from this pastime.  Additionally, simple scrapes, blisters, and bites can turn into serious problems if not treated appropriately. Since prevention is the best approach, we suggest some warm-up exercises and injury prevention tips to help all levels of gardeners avoid serious and long-term injuries while enjoying this popular outdoor activity. 

The repetitive movements associated with gardening— raking, weeding, digging and pruning—put stress on the hands and wrists. Many gardeners spend hours and hours performing these activities without proper form, leading to a variety of problems in the hands and the upper extremities.  Warming up before gardening is just as important as warming up before any exercise routine.  After warming up, stretching exercises for the major muscle groups that you use during gardening can reduce the risk of injury.  Walking around your lawn or garden a few times, then taking the time to stretch, is a particularly good idea before beginning a physically-demanding task. Following these warm-up tips below is the best way to stay healthy and enjoy a full season of gardening. 

The American Society of Hand Therapists has compiled a very thorough list of stretching exercises as well as safety tips to make sure that you can fully enjoy your time in the garden this season and for seasons to come. 

Try these upper extremity warm-up exercises prior to gardening

(Note: These exercises should never be painful. You should only feel a gentle stretch. Should you experience pain, please consult a hand therapist or physician.)

  • Fold your hands together and turn your palms away from your body as you extend your arms forward. You should feel a stretch all the way from your shoulders to your fingers. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat eight times.
  • Fold your hands together and turn your palms away from your body, but this time extend your arms overhead. You should feel the stretch in your upper torso and shoulders to hand. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat eight times.      
  • Place your hand just above the back of the elbow and gently push your elbow across your chest toward the opposite shoulder. This is a stretch for the upper back and shoulder. Stretch both the right and left arms.  Hold for 10 seconds and repeat eight times.           
  • Raise one arm overhead. Bend the elbow. Place the opposite hand on the bent elbow and gently push the elbow back further. This is a stretch for the triceps. Stretch both the right and left arms. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat eight times.
  • Extend an arm in front of you, making sure the elbow is completely straight. With your palm down, take the opposite hand and bend in the wrist downward. Then turn the palm up, and stretch the wrist backwards. This stretches the forearm and wrist muscles. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat eight times.

 Safety tips for gardeners

Wear gloves at all times. Bacteria and fungus live in the soil, and a small irritation or cut can develop into a major hand infection. You should choose a glove that is best suited to the specific task. Thick, leather or suede gloves may protect your hands from thorns, cuts and scrapes while pruning roses. Rubber or latex-coated gloves may help aid your grip when working in the soil.

Keep your hands and arms covered.  Be especially careful if you live in an area where you may disturb a snake, spider, or rodent living in your garden.  You will also be better protected from poison ivy, insect bites and other common skin irritants that may also inhabit your garden.

Take a break every hour or switch to another activity. Repetitive motions, such as digging, and sustained/constant gripping, overuse the same muscles and can cause tendonitis of the wrist or elbow or lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Break up large tasks into shorter sessions, with a rest and stretch break between gardening sessions, to reduce muscle fatigue. 

Use a tool when digging in unfamiliar or new areas. Buried sharp objects can cause tendon lacerations or punctures.  Use the correct tool for the task at hand in order to avoid accidental injury. 

Store your tools to prevent accidents. Learn how to use and store your tools correctly to prevent accidents, and keep sharp tools out of the reach of children at all times. Also make sure to put all tools away after use to prevent future injuries.

Regular tool maintenance.  Keep garden tools in top working order to reduce the physical effort required as you work in the lawn and garden.  Keep pruning and cutting tools sharp to reduce the force your hand needs to operate.

Use well-designed tools.  Use tools with non-slip rubber or padded handles to protect the smaller joints in your hands. Make a circle with your index finger and thumb–that is how big the grip of your tool should be. The shape of the handle should provide equal pressure along the palm.

Avoid awkward motions. Using better body positioning minimizes muscle pain. Work with the wrists in a neutral position to avoid the extremes of motion (up, down and sideways). Hold objects with a light grasp or pinch, avoiding a tight, sustained grip.  Switch to a dagger-type grip to minimize stress on the thumb and wrist.  Use both hands for heavy activities like lifting a bag of potting soil, and alternate hands on more repetitive tasks like scooping dirt out of the bag into a pot.

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About Lisa McKeown, OT, OTR/L

Lisa McKeown is a registered and licensed occupational therapist (OTR/L) and a certified hand therapist (CHT). Lisa works at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates at our Kenmore location and is the supervisor of the hand therapy department. She obtained her bachelor of science in Occupational Therapy from the University of New Hampshire. She is a member of the American Society of Hand Therapists. Prior to coming to Harvard Vanguard, she worked for 7 years at Mass General Hospital in the hand and upper extremity service. Her professional interests include hand and upper extremity rehabilitation, functional activity restoration, and ergonomics.
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2 Responses to The Hazards of…Gardening?!

  1. avatar Terry Fenn says:

    Lisa. Nice article about taking precautions to prevent or minimize the problems that can occur so easily from gardening. Over the years, I have had numerous aches and pains, tick bites and poison ivy, and still I sometimes forget or am too lazy to go find my gloves BEFORE starting to dig. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. avatar Ginny L. says:

    Very good reminders. Now could you do the same for protecting back and knees before and during gardening.
    Thanks

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