Just as soon as winter begins to loosen up its grip on Central Oregon, gardeners emerge from their homes eager to make the most of a short growing season. Yet for many, the tasks of gardening can become painful and frustrating. Individuals with arthritis or other types of hand or wrist conditions often find gardening to be painful.
According to Trish Dyer, a hand therapist at St. Charles Bend, arthritis doesn't have to be a thorn in your side.
“If you have weakness or if you have a joint that's painful and unstable, then it's hard to do anything,” she said. “I'm looking at, this is what you usually would do and how can I help you get back to that level of activity.”
Dyer explains that traditional gardening tools and tasks often put hands and backs in less-than-ideal positions.
“Tasks like gardening that are performed below our waist height puts us in more awkward and precarious positions, both for our backs and our hips, and also for wrists,” she said.
Many people flex or tilt their hands at their wrists when using a garden trowel to dig. Dyer teaches them to use ergonomically designed tools that keep wrists in a neutral position, and to use the entire arm to create power and motion rather than just the wrist.
“It's using big muscles in stead of a wrist flipping motion, so we transfer the loads to those bigger muscles,” she said.
Martita Marx, 68, loves to garden despite years of osteoarthritis.
“I think what happens when you have chronic pain is you start adapting to it,” she said. “What I didn't realize and what Trish had pointed out to me is that I had started doing things with my hands incorrectly and the repetitive nature of my incorrect movements and actions with my hands was damaging my hands even more than the arthritis.”
Over time the compensation pushed the bottom of her thumb out until it was completely out of joint. Dyer helped Marx relearn the proper positioning of her hand and fitted her with plastic braces that cover the bottom of her thumb and top of her wrist. The braces help her keep proper hand position and add strength where she once had pain or weakness.
“I've noticed so much difference,” she said. “The first few weeks were miserable. I really had to adjust to wearing the braces. Now I run to get the braces on.”
Dyer has a number of strategies to help patients keep gardening or doing other tasks with her hands. She suggests doing warm-ups or easy exercises before starting work in the garden, and then to ease into the workload in 20-minute segments.
“If you reassess every 20 minutes, then maybe you won't get to the point where you've totally overdone it,” she said. “I always advise people to try not to do new activities for more than up to two hours total (at a time).”
Garden design can also help. Instead of digging at ground level, put in raised beds to keep the hands working above rather than below the waist. This also helps avoid lower back pain. Having a water supply near the garden can eliminate the need for dragging heavy buckets or hoses.
Tools with large handles put less stress on hands than small handles, and ergonomic tools help keep the hands in the proper position. Plastic wraps can help to provide power and control over tools without having to squeeze as tightly.
The Arthritis Foundation certifies gardening tools as arthritis-friendly, including gloves that are designed to fit over swollen knuckles or other hand deformities.
Dyer also designs stretches and exercises that can help strengthen hands and correct some of havoc that arthritis has wreaked over time. Marx has been undergoing regular ultrasound treatment to loosen the hard fibers that have developed in her hand and gets relief by dipping her hands in hot paraffin wax.
“My tendency is to ignore it,” she said. “I'll push until I can't push anymore.”
Dyer has helped her understand that she's doing more damage to her hands that way.
“So it's sort of reorienting my thinking to say, 'OK, I have a chronic disease. It's not going to get better,'” Marx said. “But I can do some things that are going to be better for me, and allow me to be more functional for a longer period to time.”