Don’t let pain from arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome sideline you from the farm or greenhouse work you love. Help is available from a national organization called AgrAbility. All you need to do is ask.
The first step is to see a doctor to find out for sure what is causing your wrist, hand, arm and shoulder pain. Carpal tunnel syndrome can produce pain in all these areas from pressure on a nerve in the wrist, caused in large part by repetitive work that places your wrist and hand in a flexed, unnatural position.
If your doctor says your pain is caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, a wide variety of tool adaptations can help. Ned Stoller, agricultural engineer for AgrAbility, gave an interesting example that can make a big difference in the stress on your wrist when, for example, you transplant from flats to larger containers in the greenhouse.
“I call it a brick,” he joked, holding a brick aloft. “When you’re pulling out seedlings from a flat for transplanting, put a brick under the far side of the flat, and your wrist will stay in a neutral position,” This will prevent irritation of that crucial nerve in your wrist that causes carpal tunnel pain.
“If you are working sitting low,” continued Stoller, “your shoulders will be hunched and your wrists and hands will be at a difficult angle. Either lower the table or raise your seat, so you don’t put strain on your shoulders and wrists.” The more time you spend doing a job, the more important it is for you to fix positions that cause strain.”
“There are finger knives that can slip on your finger like a ring. These can go on either the inside or the outside of the hand.” With a finger knife that costs only $3, you can avoid the strain of gripping.
For $15, you can put a hose clamp on your hoe handle that will allow you to hoe with your wrist in a neutral position. This is the principle behind the robo-handle that was demonstrated by Tom Kolasa of Hillsdale, MI. Used with a special glove with hook and loop strips on the back, the tool extender allows Kolasa to use the watering wand in his greenhouse without gripping it. The wand is held firmly by the hook and loop on the BACK of the glove. Besides relieving the stress of gripping, the robo-handle is designed to move stress away from the weaker muscles in your hand, wrist and forearm, to the stronger muscles of your upper arm and chest.
The hose clamp that attaches the robo-handle to the watering wand can be tightened without a screwdriver. Tom simply uses a turnkey.
To water plants on the floor without stress on his wrists and hands, Kolasa simply snaps the robo-handle onto a leather band on his upper arm, so that stronger upper arm muscle continues to hold most of the weight. These adaptations are simple and inexpensive, but very effective.
To avoid the strain of gripping a tool, you can also combine the hook and loop-backed glove with a right angle trowel. This will give you a neutral wrist position and low force on your wrist and hand. “You may still have the repetitive movements,” Stoller explained, “but the force will be less.”
Carpal tunnel pain is not only caused by repetitive motion in a bent wrist position and gripping, but also by vibration and pounding, and has some ties to fluid retention, explained Amber Wolfe, Arthritis Specialist with the AgrAbility program.
Solutions? Driving a tractor produces a constant low frequency vibration from the fingers up through the shoulders that can be damaging. Stoller suggests wearing gloves with gel-filled palms, which absorb and dissipate much of the vibration. When hammering, driving stakes, or using a chain saw, the same gloves can help, as can rubber handle covers that fit over your tools, enlarging their diameter. Gripping a larger diameter object puts less stress on the wrist and hand than gripping a smaller diameter object, like an unmodified hammer handle.
Need to do pruning? Instead of using a hand squeezed pruner, try a pruner with a battery-powered controller that can be operated by any finger or thumb of either hand, simply by pushing a button. “While a finger of one hand is pushing the button, the other hand can be resting. We don’t sell these, but we can let you try one, and may even be able to help with financing,” noted Stoller.
Tom Kolasa faced big challenges when he decided to contact AgrAbility in 2008. The owner of an orchard and two small greenhouses, he had just become a double amputee due to illness. He desperately wanted to continue to work on his farm. “When I called, Ned Stoller came out right away to look things over and see what I needed. Then, a bit later, he came back to my farm bringing the adaptive equipment, including an all-terrain power wheelchair with a power lift so I could reach up to 6 feet off the ground. With the lift, I can prune, visually inspect my fruit trees, and pick much of my tree fruit and raspberries.”
Other adaptive equipment planned by Stoller includes a wheelchair with bicycle tires to enable Kolasa to navigate the rough driveway to his greenhouse, which has a hydrant hose connection and a lever to turn on the water at a comfortable wheelchair height, as well as a remote control roll-up door. He can do work in his greenhouse.
Tom’s son sells his tree fruit, raspberries, day-neutral strawberries, and spring flowering plants at nearby farmers markets. Tom can still do a good portion of the work himself, which means a lot to him.