“Instead of using a tool, I’d use my hand,” says Chicago landscape designer Suzanne Frank of her early gardening experience. “The soil is usually soft in containers, but I should have used a tool—any tool would probably have helped.”
Would have helped, she means, in lessening or preventing the osteoarthritis she now has in her hands. Suzanne Frank was 50 when she began as a home gardener, and approaching 60 when she startedBluestem Gardens. “If you’re not used to using your hands, to applying that kind of pressure, it will exacerbate” joint pain, she says. Not only that: injury to joints can make them more susceptible to arthritis.
“Wear gloves with a good grip and a snug fit,” Frank advises. “And never, never, never kneel directly on the ground. Always use a pad.”
Osteoarthritis is the most common of some 100 arthritic diseases causing joint pain (the runner-up is rheumatoid arthritis). In a helpful, basic article about arthritis, prevention.com notes that, because there’s no cure, prevention is key. Everydayhealth.com points out that two of three gardeners are baby boomers and provides common-sense advice. Even if you used to garden for four hours straight, for instance, don’t work through your pain; instead take frequent breaks. Containers allow you to garden at waist level.
Overall, use the correct tools in the smartest way (see Melinda Myers’ tips). Tools should be sturdy but lightweight, to reduce strain; a small shovel might mean your task takes longer, says Frank, but will save stress on the arms and back. Make sure the handgrip is the right size. “They’re making more tools to fit women’s hands,” says Frank. “But part of the trick, too, is having a big enough handle so you don’t have to grip really hard on a small tool.” Pruners with arms not only extend your reach, meaning less bending and twisting, but also allow shoulders and back to take over some of the work otherwise done by the hands.
Make sure tools are sharp, to reduce pressure on hands and limbs. “Dull tools are the worst,” says Frank. “Good hardware stores will generally sharpen your cutters, hoes, and shovels for you.” One tool she swears by is a hand spade with a sharp point at the end, a knife blade on one side, and a serrated edge on the other. She also likes ergonomic hand pruners with rotating handles, which allow for more natural movements of the wrist and fingers, reducing the effort required by up to 30 percent.
In general, aim for tools and motions that contribute to natural, efficient use of the body. When using hand tools, maintain a neutral wrist position: the wrist forming a relatively straight line with the hand and forearm. Similarly, keep the back in a natural position, with as little twisting and bending as possible. Take the strain off hands and arms by using tools that maximize the strength of the big muscles in the back and legs. The National Gardening Association has some great tips for ergonomic gardening.
Minimizing pain is possible, but eliminating it? Not so much. To alleviate joint pain, try OTC pain relievers, gentle heat treatments (especially for arthritis), and your TENS machine.