Arthritis Pain: All Too Common Among Farmers
By Ellen S. Gibson
Pain spans an entire spectrum from mild to “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. Being mindful of how the work you do affects your body is a good place to start. You want to continue to farm over the long term, stay healthy, and keep pain at a minimum.
I have arthritis in my hands, which I discovered soon after I started to milk goats. The repetitive motion of milking twice a day caused my joints to swell. My fingers were stiff, my hands were painful and had no strength.
Eventually, I bought a milking machine. In AgrAbility lingo, this is a form of assistive technology, which is a tool to help with the work you need to do.
Over time my hands have not healed. Arthritis did not disappear. A strong handshake is agonizing. I can’t open a jar easily, and fitting the tubing together on the milking machine is a challenge.
What is arthritis?
In simplest terms, arthritis is the inflammation of a joint. The joints most often affected are the spine, shoulders, hips, knees, and fingers. Arthritis is the leading form of disability worldwide. It affects one in five Americans and one in three farmers. There are over 100 types of arthritis, but the kind that most often affects farmers is osteoarthritis.
Why farmers? Why Osteoarthritis? Farmers are affected because of the work they do. Lifting, bending, gripping, stooping, climbing, hoisting, and hefting cause repetitive motion injury. The wear and tear on the joints erodes the cartilage that cushions the joints, resulting in pain, heat, stiffness, and swelling.
Osteoarthritis is often correlated with aging because joint degeneration occurs over time. There is no cure, but there are ways to relieve painful symptoms and to prevent further damage. Here are a few suggestions.
Exercise to prepare for the work of the day
If you work physically hard, chances are you awaken in the morning with some stiffness. Your muscles and joints will thank you if you take a few minutes to move the wrists, fingers, ankles, shoulders, and back when you get up in the morning. This literally “oils” the joints and helps you work out sore places.
Exercise to manage pain
Exercising those sore joints is one of the best ways to manage pain. But wait a minute—didn’t exercise cause the pain in the first place?
Most farmers are very physically active, working in a particular way (often repetitively) for long hours. Their goal: getting the job done.
The goal of exercise is different. Exercise is for strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and range-of-motion. When you exercise, the focus is not on work, but on your health.
You can afford a few minutes to take a stretch break during the day. A few minutes to pause, get a drink of water, and stretch will make the next hour way more tolerable. Strong muscles are one of the best ways you can support your joints. Walking, hiking, swimming, snowshoeing, and hunting build strength and endurance.
Yoga and tai chi are examples of low impact exercises that improve balance and increase flexibility. See Yoga Stretches for Farmers (PDF) for stretches you can do during the course of the day around the farm and in the tractor seat.
- Rest when you’re tired. Rest allows the joints to heal and repair.
- Massage increases the blood flow to the muscles, bringing warmth and healing. Some people find a lot of relief using topical creams that contain arnica or white pine oil.
- Stay hydrated.
- Take care of your health. It’s critical to the health of your farm.
What works for you? How do you rejuvenate and summon the energy to face a new day? We’ll discuss in future blog posts.
Looking for other ways to relieve arthritis pain? Check out the Maine AgrAbility website section on Total Farmer Health – Arthritis.