Gardening is a relaxing and enjoyable source of creativity, but for millions of people with arthritis and other physical limitations, it’s hardly pain-free. With a combination of educated tool choices, good body mechanics and “Why didn’t I think of that?” tweaks, you won’t have to hang up the trowel.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that more than 400,000 people are treated in emergency rooms for outdoor tool-related emergencies every year. If you’re predisposed to injury due to physical limitations, choosing the right tools becomes even more important.
Garden and wellness expert Shawna Coronado says ergonomic tools benefit everyone. Ergonomic implies that tools are designed for comfort and efficiency, which will aid in preventing repetitive use injuries.
“Tools with curved handles allow your hand to be in a natural handshake position,” says Coronado. “With a regular trowel, you have to twist your wrist. By reducing the twist, you also reduce stress on the rest of your arm.”
Barb Kreski, director of horticultural therapy at the Chicago Botanic Garden, says a pool noodle can do wonders for making hand tools more comfortable. A four- to six-inch section cut from a noodle and wrapped around the handle makes gripping the tool easier for people who otherwise struggle to grasp objects. Look for tools bearing the Arthritis Foundation’s Ease of Use Commendation [link]. To receive the designation, tools undergo a three-step testing process at an independent laboratory that evaluates the user-friendliness of the product as well as the packaging.
For those with back and lower body pain, kneeling or sitting on the ground is out of the question. Kreski suggests investing in a garden kneeler that doubles as a stool. Supports on each side can help you rise from a kneeling position. Flip it over and you can take a seat. The Deep-Seat Garden Kneeler is a great choice.
Coronado adds that hand tools should be lightweight and long-handled tools should be heavy. The heavier the tool, the less you’ll have to pull or push to get the job done.
“Heavy tools will cut easily into the ground,” Coronado says.
Injuries often result from repetitive use. While you might save a few bucks on a larger bag of soil, Coronado says you’re not saving your back. Go lighter. She suggests hugging bags close to the body, “like a baby,” when moving them around the garden. Periscoping is another common mistake that entails craning the head back as we work in the ground.
“When digging, keep your eye on the action,” she says. “Keep your head down and don’t lift up.”
Instead of reaching and pulling a hoe, Coronado suggests a sweeping motion that doesn’t stress the lower back.
Garden at Your Level
If gardening in the ground is not an option, consider raised beds or tables that can also offer stability while standing. For those in wheelchairs or who prefer to sit, Kreski recommends an elevated garden that provides knee space, like a VegTrug. The wedge-shaped elevated bed has plenty of planting depth too.
Lightweight containers and hanging baskets are other great alternatives that allow you to grow a variety of annuals, perennials, veggies and herbs.
A hanging plant pulley system is used in the Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden for their hanging baskets. It allows indoor and outdoor plants to be raised and lowered for planting and watering and takes the muscle out of it. A simple watering wand, available in several lengths, makes it easier to deliver water directly to thirsty plants. No more reaching or standing on tip toe.
“Two-thirds of all people with osteoarthritis are under the age of 65,” says Coronado. “These types of modifications are not just for older people.