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Column: Don’t ignore gardening pain. It could signal something serious

Most people do not head for the garden planning to finish the day with aches and pains or a serious injury. Tending flowers, trimming bushes, planting a new tree, and even mowing the lawn can be considered a way to relax and enjoy the outdoors. For the gardener, nothing is more satisfying than stepping back and seeing how beautiful it all is.

Unfortunately, gardening and working in the yard can lead to all kinds of injuries, such as pulled and torn muscles; back injuries; tendonitis in the elbow; thumb pain and carpel tunnel syndrome.

Too often, once we have suffered some kind of injury, we ignore it, believing it will go away. If it is serious enough, it won’t. It will only get worse without treatment. I can’t tell you how many patients have come to me saying such comments as, “I can’t squeeze the toothpaste tube because of the pain in my thumb,” or, “I can’t lift my arm because it hurts.” Patients also have admitted that they have experienced tingling and numbness in their hands for a long time before finally making an appointment to see the doctor.

It is important to remember that if you have pain after gardening, and if it lasts for longer than a few days, you should call the doctor. The best thing to do is to take preventive action before going to work in your garden.

Prevention is the best medicine

  • Plan ahead: If there are several tasks you need to complete in the garden, make a plan that includes how long you will work on each task and how often you will rest. Don’t try and get everything finished in one go.
  • Stretch before you begin to work: Stretching makes your body more flexible and decreases the risk of injury.
  • Invest in the latest ergonomic gardening tools. They are lighter and are designed to support your hands and upper extremities to prevent injury.
  • Know your body: When you feel tired, stop and rest. Your body is telling you that you are beginning to do too much and that you can be at risk for injury.
  • Be mindful of repetitive motions: If you need to do a repetitive task such as clipping the dead roses or pulling weeds, take breaks often and be mindful of how long you are doing it. Stop one task and do another that uses different muscles. Stop and stretch the muscles you are using.
  • Drink plenty of water: You can become dehydrated without realizing it. Make sure you are drinking plenty of fresh water, especially as you exercise. Dehydration can contribute to muscle pain.
  • Avoid the heat of the day: We have high humidity in Delaware. High heat and humidity together can put you at risk for heat exhaustion or worse*.
  • Relax at the end of the day: Once you are finished working in the garden, go inside and enjoy a hot shower or bath. Remember to stretch again.

* If you, or a friend or family member has been working hard in the garden on a hot day and is experiencing symptoms such as dizziness or loss of consciousness, difficulty in speaking or breathing, heart palpitations, chest pain or stiffness, and a fever, he or she may be suffering from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, a stroke or a heart attack. Call 911.

Alice Workman, OTR-L, is a licensed and registered occupational therapist with Beebe Healthcare. Her areas of expertise include: orthopaedic and hand rehabilitation, manual and decongestive lymphedema management, upper extremity neuromuscular reeducation, and special certification in Saebo Splinting to improve functional upper extremity return following a stroke.

Beebe Healthcare is a not-for-profit community healthcare system with a charitable mission to encourage healthy living, prevent illness, and restore optimal health for the people residing, working, or visiting in the communities we serve. It offers services throughout Southern Delaware including a 210-licensed-bed hospital, a cancer center, and outpatient facilities at multiple sites providing walk-in care, lab, imaging, and physical rehab services. For more information, please visit us online at