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Avoiding Hand Injuries in the Garden

Avoiding Hand Injuries in the Garden

By Jeffrey Humphrey, PT, CHT, CEAS


Springtime finds many of us working hard outdoors, clearing away winter debris and preparing lawns and gardens for the summer ahead. Yard work can take a toll on our hands, especially if we overdo it. Hand therapists can find themselves very busy this time of year helping people recover from hand injuries they might have been able to prevent with some simple precautions.


The most common hand injuries


The most common hand injuries fall into three general categories: repetitive strain injuries, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Repetitive strain injuries result from repetitive actions you do with your hands, especially while in a faulty position. Weeding, planting, and digging all have the potential to result in repetitive strain injuries. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), any activity you perform for more than two consecutive hours or for more than four hours a day puts you at risk for repetitive strain injuries.


Tendonitis is a repetitive strain injury affecting the tendons that attach muscles to bones. Repetitive wrist action can cause the tendons in your wrist to become tender, inflamed, and swollen. DeQuervain’s syndrome is a common form of tendonitis that involves the thumb side of the wrist and often results from excessive weeding, planting, and hammering. Cycles of overuse lead to microtrauma, swelling, and pain, which limits your wrist function.


Carpal tunnel syndrome involves the median nerve, which runs all the way from the neck to the hand. The median nerve, which controls sensations in the palm, thumb, and first three fingers, travels through the carpal tunnel in the wrist. The median nerve can become compressed inside this small tunnel. The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome are tingling in the thumb, forefinger, middle finger, and middle finger side of the ring finger. These symptoms can be brought on by many common garden activities when performed for long periods with your wrists and hands positioned incorrectly. Vibration is also a risk factor for carpal tunnel syndrome.


Warm-up before you dig


Take a few minutes to walk around your garden, warm up your muscles, and stretch before digging into your outdoor work. These stretches from the American Society of Hand Therapists can help prevent injuries. They should feel good and should not cause pain. Hold each stretch for about ten seconds and repeat two to three times.


1) Fold your hands together and turn your palms away from your body as you extend your arms forward. You should feel a nice, gentle stretch from shoulders to your fingers.


2) Fold your hands together and turn your palms away from your body, and extend your arms over your head. You should feel a stretch in your upper torso, shoulders, and hands.


3) Place your hand above the back of your opposite elbow and gently push that elbow across your chest. Do this on both sides to stretch your upper back.


4)  Raise one arm overhead and bend the elbow. Place the opposite hand on the bent elbow and gently push the elbow back further, stretching your triceps. Do both sides.


5) Extend one arm out in front of you with the elbow straight. With the palm facing down, take the opposite hand and gently bend the wrist downward. Then turn the palm up, and stretch the wrist backwards. Repeat with the other arm.


Safety first, for prevention of injuries


1) Always wear task-appropriate gloves. Soil contains bacteria and fungus, which means that even a small cut can develop into a major infection.


2) Take a break every hour or switch to a different activity, to avoid repetitive strain injuries and muscle fatigue.


3) Avoid awkward motions by using better body positioning. Work with your wrists in a neutral position by avoiding extremes of motion up, down, and sideways. Use both hands for heavy activities.


4) Use well designed tools with padded handles to protect small joints and bones in your hands and wrists.


5) Use a tool when digging into unfamiliar or new areas. Buried sharp objects can cause lacerations and puncture wounds.


By following these simple guidelines, you can lower your risk of wrist and hand injuries while gardening. If you do suffer an injury, seek treatment from an experienced caregiver.


Jeff Humphrey is a physical therapist specializing in treatment of the upper extremity. He is certified both as a hand therapist and an ergonomic assessment specialist in the Department of Rehabilitation at Cayuga Medical Center. Contact him about hand therapy or ergonomic workplace assessment at (607) 274-4159.








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