By Kathy Hubbard
Ah, the sound of spring is in the air. Right now, as I’m writing this, a chickadee is whistling for a mate, a robin is pecking at my window and the neighbor has fired up his lawn mower. Ah, yes, the sound of gardening tools is in the air!
The Consumer Product Safety Commission figures that emergency rooms treat more than 400,000 outdoor garden-tool-related accidents each year. Hand injuries account for over half of them.
“While protection and safety is important in everyday life, proper hand care is particularly important in the garden,” David M. Lichtman, MD, vice president of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, said.
“Just because you might be out relaxing in the garden doesn’t mean you should throw safety precautions to the wind. Before you start each task, simply ask yourself, ‘What can I do to keep my hands safe?’”
Besides the usual blisters, lacerations and contusions which can pretty much be avoided by wearing properly fitted gardening gloves, the most common hand injuries fall into three categories: repetitive strain injuries, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. All of which are painful and mostly avoidable.
Talking about always wearing gloves, the ASSH states that they will “protect your skin from fertilizers and pesticides as well as bacteria and fungus which live in the soil. When exposed to soil, even the smallest cut or lesion runs the risk of developing into a major hand infection. Leather gloves offer protection from thorny objects; snake, rodent, and insect bites; poison ivy; and other skin irritants in the garden. Gloves also prevent sunburn and fingernail damage.”
To avoid hand injuries, Jeffrey Humphrey, a physical therapist at Cayunga Health in New York, suggests having a good warm-up before working outdoors. He recommends taking a few minutes to walk around the garden to stretch your leg muscles and then stretching your hand muscles before picking up that rake, trowel or trimmer.
You know, that makes sense. We warm-up before we do other strenuous exercise, why not before we garden? But, how do you warm up your hands? Humphrey has some suggestions.
1. Fold your hands together and turn your palms away from your body as you extend your arms forward. 2. Fold your hands together and turn your palms away from your body, and extend your arms over your head. 3. Place your hand above the back of your opposite elbow and gently push that elbow across your chest. Do this on both sides.
4. Raise one arm overhead and bend the elbow. Place the opposite hand on the bent elbow and gently push the elbow back further. 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.
“These stretches should feel good and should not cause pain,” Humphrey said. “Hold each stretch for about ten seconds and repeat two to three times.”
I have to tell you that I tried each of these exercises and now my hands feel much better while I’m typing. More flexible would probably be the best description.
But, back to gardening. The ASSH says to avoid prolonged repetitive motions. “Repetitive motions, such as digging, raking, trimming hedges, pruning bushes, or planting bulbs may cause skin tendon or nerve irritation. Make sure your gardening activities are varied and tasks are rotated every 15 minutes with a brief rest in-between so that the same muscles are not used over and over again.”
Humphrey adds that it’s important to avoid awkward motions by positioning your body correctly. “Work with your wrist in a neutral position by avoiding extremes of motion up, down and sideways. Use both hands for heavy activities.”
And, finally, use well-designed tools that fit your hands comfortably and make sure you’re using the correct tool for the job at hand.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.