The Link Between Arthritis and Agriculture

By Ellen S. Gibson, Maine AgrAbility

I have arthritis in my hands, which I discovered soon after I started to milk goats. The repetitive motion of milking twice a day causes my joints to swell and that makes my hands painful. A strong handshake is agonizing. When the milk is heaviest after the goats kid, I have to stop frequently, breathe, and concentrate to keep at it.

People tend to think of arthritis as an annoyance, when in fact, it’s the leading form of disability worldwide. Arthritis affects one in three farmers causing pain and stiffness, decreased mobility and dexterity. The lifting, bending, gripping, stooping, climbing, hoisting, and hefting farmers do in the course of a day causes stress on the joints, wearing away the cartilage that keeps bones, tendons, and muscles working smoothly and seamlessly.

Defining Arthritis

In simplest terms, arthritis is the inflammation of a joint. The joints most often affected are the shoulders, knees, hips, elbows or hands. Arthritis has many forms and affects people of all ages with various symptoms and levels of disability. There are over 100 types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, fibromyalgia, carpel tunnel, gout, and even Lyme Disease.

An Ounce of Prevention

Your parents gave you a genetic health card at birth. If arthritis is in your genes, it will affect you eventually. Injuries and certain kinds of work can cause arthritis over time, which is why people often associate this condition with aging. There is no cure for arthritis, but being aware of how you use your body, adapting the work you do, and avoiding repetitive tasks can relieve painful symptoms even if it can’t be prevented over the long run.

Making small changes in the way you work can add up to significant benefits. For example, every time you jump down from your tractor, the jarring impact is injuring your knees, your hips, and your lower back. Don’t wait for your knees to start hurting. Instead of jumping, climb down from your tractor.

There are all kinds of tools and equipment to help you farm. Special ergonomically designed tools can help you work more comfortably, with less injury to your joints. A tractor can be retrofitted with lower step, to help you get on and off. Rearview mirrors can be installed to keep you from twisting your torso. And of course, a roll-bar is standard safe operating equipment. For me, because pain limits the number of goats I can milk, a milking machine is assistive technology that helps me move beyond a barrier so I can grow my business.

Vary your routines. The object cannot solely be working until a task is done. It’s important to be mindful of how your work is affecting your body throughout the course of the day. Are your muscles getting sore? Stop and stretch for five minutes. Are you feeling tension in your shoulders? Shift to another task. Is your head beginning to ache? Move into the shade and have a drink of water.

Instead of carrying one heavy bucket that makes you lopsided and puts undue strain on shoulder, elbow, and back muscles, carry two buckets. The same weight evenly distributed is much easier on your body. You can reduce the pressure you need to grip if you cushion the handles on those buckets. Cut a piece of pipe insulation and slip it over the handle. Hold in place with duct tape. The thicker handle makes for an easier grip that puts less strain on your finger joints.

Rest when you’re tired. Take a nap after lunch. Rest allows the joints to heal and repair.

Massage increases the blood flow to the muscles, bringing warmth and healing. Creams containing arnica and white pine oil help to heighten the effect and can provide welcome relief.

Exercise to Manage Pain

Exercising those sore joints is one of the best ways to manage pain. That may seem counterintuitive—didn’t exercise cause the pain in the first place?

Exercise and physical activity are not the same. Most farmers are very physically active, working in a particular way (repetitively), concentrating on getting the job done. Exercise is physical activity, too, but the focus is different. Does your daily routine take your muscles through their full range of motion? At some point in the day, do you stretch to maintain balance and flexibility? Do you consciously build endurance as you bring your heart rate up and sustain it before winding down? When you exercise, the focus is not on work, but on your health. The distinction is important.

Walking, hiking, swimming, snowshoeing, hunting—even running—for endurance, and yoga and tai chi for balance and flexibility are examples of low impact exercises that are easy on your joints and great for your health. A bruising game of basketball or football will not help sore joints heal and is not recommended.

Disabilities come in an entire spectrum from mild to extreme. Some are annoyances, some will stop you in your tracks. Like the weather, the course of your life is unpredictable and there are some things you just can’t control. But many aspects of your physical and mental health are within your control. By being mindful of the work you do and its effect on your body, you can continue to farm over the long term, remaining healthy and pain-free.

Time for chores!

Ellen Gibson is a member of the Maine AgrAbility team. AgrAbility is a program to help farmers with chronic or disabling conditions or injuries so they can continue to farm. A partnership with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Goodwill, and Alpha One, the program is funded by the USDA. For more information, contact Program Coordinator Lani Carlson at 207.944.1533.