‘‘Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.” — Rudyard Kipling
The scent of fresh-turned soil, the buzz of a lazy bee, the tickle as a bead of perspiration drops from the end of your nose: Gardening is a sensory endeavor. But for many avid gardeners, the pain of arthritis can overshadow the joy of tilling the soil.
In a summary of its 2018 National Gardening Survey, Garden Research, a division of the National Gardening Association, revealed gardeners aged 50–64 made up about 35 percent of hobbyists nationwide. Cross-reference that with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data showing 29.3 percent of people aged 45–64 (and 49.6 percent of people aged 65 years or older) reported doctor-diagnosed arthritis, and it’s clear avid gardeners will not be sidelined by chronic pain.
The good news is, practical adjustments and work-around solutions make it easier than ever for gardeners with arthritis to pursue their passion.
Strategies for gardening with arthritis
Listen to your body
Pain is more than annoyance; it’s a signal.
“If you are struggling, don’t try to force it. That’s when injuries occur,” says Dr. Brian Bear, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder care at OrthoIllinois in Rockford, Illinois.
Bear also suggests a pre-gardening ritual to hydrate and stretch.
“Make sure you are well hydrated and are drinking plenty of water when working in the garden,” he says. “Gardening is strenuous and will result in a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles; that causes muscle pain and soreness. Drinking water before, during and after gardening clears the toxic lactic acid out of your muscles faster, resulting in less muscle soreness.”
And don’t overlook the impact of a healthy mind–body connection. Bear advises yoga stretching prior to and immediately after gardening. Look for a beginner’s five-minute yoga app and incorporate it into your regimen — just like filling your watering can or putting away your tools.
Following his warm-up advice, this final tip may seem counter-intuitive, but Bear says cooling off in a cold shower right after gardening can have lasting benefits.
“Put the water temperature on the maximum cold setting and try to stay in the spray for 30 seconds,” he says. “This will decrease inflammation.”
Use supplements wisely
Speaking of inflammation, some of the most common over-the-counter medications used to treat the pain of arthritis may inadvertently exacerbate the situation. Non-steroidal-anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium bring relief, but overuse can negatively impact the digestive system causing an imbalance that leads to — you guessed it — systemic inflammation.
If you’re a fan of curry, you probably have turmeric in your spice cabinet. One of its key components, curcumin, is gaining mainstream recognition for its anti-inflammatory effect. The National Institutes of Health lists a number of articles on the subject, including one suggesting curcumin may work as well as NSAIDs for reducing inflammation.
Long touted by skin revitalization specialists as an anti-aging supplement, collagen is the main component in bones, muscles, skin and tendons. In one form, it is the basis for the elastic cartilage that cushions joints. When that buffer breaks down, as happens with osteoarthritis, the result is bone-on-bone pressure and pain. Eating collagen-rich foods like bone broth, leafy greens and citrus, or taking a collagen supplement may ease joint pain.
An blog about collagen posted on the Arthritis Foundation’s website suggests cautious optimism, including a reference to a 2017 British Journal of Sports Medicine article citing pain relief among people who took a collagen supplement, and a 2009 study published in Arthritis Research and Therapy concluding collagen is safe and effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
If you choose to incorporate supplements like curcumin and collagen into your health plan, consider taking them right before you head to the garden. Elliott Schackne, a gut health advocate and owner of Orion Strength in Orange County, California, says the movement associated with gardening will enhance blood flow to hard-to-reach connective tissue and cartilage.
“That’s the ideal time to do it,” says Schackne. “Blood flow will remove inflammatory elements and help feed nutrients into affected areas.”
Like a master chef with his knives or an artist with his brushes, gardeners need the right tools. That’s especially true for gardeners with arthritis. Padded gardening gloves, kneepads and wide-grip shears are easy to find. Look for products bearing the Arthritis Foundation’s Ease-of-Use seal, lab-tested items that meet established criteria including hose nozzles, pruners and weed removers.
Search online for gardening tools adapted or recommended for people with arthritis. Consider wearing a gardening apron with pockets to keep tools handy. Check out a combo seat-kneeler that converts with an easy flip and has handles to grip while rising from a kneeling position.
Build up — not out — to avoid hunching and crouching. Incorporate trellises, flowerpots, hangers or repurposed whiskey barrels to create elevated gardens or to build levels within your garden.
And always listen to your body. Take frequent breaks. Change position at least every 15 minutes. Stretch and stay hydrated. Remember: You’re in it for the long haul.
As Ortho Illinois’s Dr. Bear says, “Your joints will choose the tortoise over the hare every day of the week.”
Want to learn more about getting outside with chronic pain? Read “Hiking With Arthritis.”