‘Handy’ tips to stay safe while working in the garden


by Caroline Wurtzel
Gardening is a great outdoor activity that allows you to grow beautiful flowers or nutritious foods for your family to enjoy. All the digging, planting and weeding is good exercise, but it can also cause injury in your hands, wrists and arms if you’re not careful.

Because gardening involves a lot of repetitive motions, people who enjoy this hobby are susceptible to overuse injuries. These injuries typically develop over time and may affect the hand, wrist or elbow. The pain is often ignored when minor, which sometimes causes mild injuries to develop into more serious problems

Common gardening injuries

Trigger finger/thumb

Most gardeners do a lot of pruning without realizing that the continual opening and closing of shears and pruners can lead to a painful locking of the fingers or thumbs.  When this occurs, pain develops in the palm, or you can experience a locked finger pointing downward, forcing you to use your other hand to “unlock” it.

Gamekeeper’s thumb

This is a chronic condition caused by repetitive motion and stress on the ligament located on the inside of the thumb. Repeatedly opening and closing hand tools and clippers can cause chronic weakening of the ligament.

Wrist tendinitis

Repeated movement of the wrist can result in chronic pain. Friction occurs when the tendons in the wrist rub together. This friction can cause swelling, irritation and inflammation. Gardeners commonly experience this either near the base of the thumb or farther up the forearm.

Hand infections

Some gardeners are unaware of rose thorn disease (sporotrichosis). A fungus found in soil and in rose thorns can enter your bloodstream through a simple rose thorn prick. It can take months to show any symptoms. At first there will be a purple or pink painless lesion which can spread up the arm as ulcers or open sores. Other bacteria or fungus can be introduced with even the smallest cut, running the risk of developing into a major hand infection.

Ways to prevent hand injuries

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, emergency rooms treat more than 400,000 outdoor garden tool-related accidents each year. With proper safety techniques, you can stay away from the hospital and avoid becoming a statistic.

Always wear gloves. Use thick leather gloves when working with roses. Latex or rubber gloves are best when gripping tools or when working in the soil. Proper gloves will not only reduce blistering but will also protect your skin from fertilizers, pesticides, bacteria and fungus.

Vary your activities and take breaks.  Don’t stay on one repetitive task too long. When raking, trimming hedges, pulling weeds, pruning bushes or planting bulbs, move from one job to another every 15 minutes with a brief rest in between. Be sure to take breaks regularly.

There is a tool for everything so use it. Avoid using your hands to do jobs a tool can do better and faster. Select tools that are lightweight and include thick rubber handles to reduce stress on the fingers when gripping. Ergonomic gardening tools can significantly decrease grip force and reduce any inflammation

Check your posture

Posture includes whole body position but also includes the angle of your wrist while using hand tools. Grip strength is maximized when the wrist is in a relaxed, neutral position.

Connect with an expert when you need help.

If you have a hand, wrist or arm injury, connect with a hand specialist. Dr. Caroline Wurtzel is a St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea physician who specializes in hand, upper extremity and microvascular surgery. Her office is located in Suite 302 of the St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea Professional Office Building; 855-450-2020.

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