Friday, July 22, 2005

Beware, gardening can cause numerous hand, arm ailments

Hand therapist provides tips for minimizing injuries

Gardeners prepare a flower bed at Elkhorn Golf Club.

By Kristin Syms
Special to the Express

Gardens are in full bloom everywhere in the Wood River Valley and many of us have been outside raking, shoveling, digging, weeding and planting.

We ask a great deal of our bodies when gardening, especially our hands. Gardeners can spend hours doing tasks with improper form, wrong tools, or without breaks, leading to varied problems in the hand and arm.

In addition, accidents while gardening are more frequent than one may think. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, emergency rooms treat more than 400,000 garden- and tool-related accidents a year. Gardeners can protect themselves through understanding hand protection, body mechanics, using the right tool for the right job, and learning stretches and warm-ups.

Performing a task repetitively without allowing rest time is common when doing gardening activities. Picking up small seeds, weeding by grasping, twisting and pinching, and raking for long periods can all cause aches and pains. Repetitive-motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, or lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow, can occur with awkward positions or postures, vibration, or using hands to pound or push things.

Understanding hand protection techniques while gardening is the first line of defense to prevent repetitive stress injuries.

The following tips will help:

· Use the correct posture for all tasks. Hunched shoulders, forward head, and arms at awkward positions can exacerbate symptoms. Keep your back straight, stomach muscles taut, and the task you are doing close to you.

· Use ergonomically designed tools that fit your hand. Handles are available in many diameters, angles, and options for anti-slip coating, contouring and cushioning. Test the tools before you buy them. If you do buy a tool with a handle that has finger grips molded into the handle, make sure it fits you. If the contours are too big, your fingers are spread out and this causes reduced grip strength. If the contours are too small, blisters can occur.

· Keep your wrist in a neutral position. Grip strength is at its maximum when the wrist is in neutral. One can lose up to 25 percent of grip strength when the wrist is bent down.

· If you have symptoms, use wrist supports to keep the wrist in the neutral position while gardening

· Take frequent rests from gripping tasks. Use larger muscle groups to grasp objects as opposed to pinching them. For example, use both arms to cradle a bag of dirt instead of gripping it with the fingers of one hand.

· Don't push with force on the thumb.

· Don't use your hand as a tool.

· Use the larger tools you have to begin a task and then a smaller one for the second part of the activity. In other words, when digging a hole to plant something, use a larger shovel first, then a smaller, hand-held one.

"Body mechanics" refers to the way we do things with our body in activities. In other words, it is very important to adjust the activity that you are doing to your body, not your body to the activity. To follow are some tips to think about while you are gardening:

When weeding or planting:

· Avoid bending at the waist in order to reach the ground. Squat, kneel, or sit on the ground, changing positions every 15 minutes. When you go from kneeling or sitting try to avoid placing full body weight on your hands when coming to standing.

· Use a kneeling pad or bench.

· Use long-handled tools.

When digging or shoveling:

· Lift small amounts of dirt at a time.

· Set your stomach muscles, stabilize your back, and use your legs to lift the dirt from the ground. Do not twist.

· Put the blade of the shovel straight into the dirt and step straight down onto it.

When raking or hoeing:

· Use different muscle groups of the upper body in order to get the job done. In other words, isolate your upper back muscles, then use your upper arms. Tighten and loosen your grip on the tool you are using.

· Use the appropriately sized tools that fit your height.

· Keep your back straight while you keep the rake close to your body.

When lifting or carrying:

· Standard safe lifting loads are 64 pounds for a middle-aged man and 28 pounds for a woman. The load should be less than this, however, if the load being lifted is awkward or hard to reach.

· Use your larger muscle groups to lift objects. Avoid carrying heavy things with your fingertips.

· Use your legs to lift, keeping your back straight, face what you are lifting, and keep it close into your body.

· Use a wheelbarrow or a wagon to carry heavier objects.

For specific questions regarding hands, call a certified hand therapist, such as St. Luke's Idaho Elks Rehabilitation, south of Ketchum.

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