Does Gardening Make Your Hands Hurt?

Chris Williams

Summertime and the living is easy for most gardeners - unless you suffer from stiff, painful hands, says orthopaedic surgeon Chris Williams

“This time of year sees me clipping back the lavender, dead-heading the borders and generally enjoying the late summer bloom before the backbreaking spade work that comes later in the year. But for some gardeners, the digging and kneeling actually hurt less than the gentler job of pruning which can leave their hands stiff and painful.

“It’s the repetitive use of secateurs which causes the problem and it especially affects people who have any osteoarthritis (wear and tear) in their finger joints. Although this condition can creep up insidiously, it gets worse with overuse. If your hands start to hurt, take a break rather than attempt to work through the pain. You could also try over the counter medication such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatory gels and hopefully the pain will settle in time.

“If you have a history of this condition then you could try taking glucosamine supplements – available from high street health stores and pharmacies - which can help ease the background ache. In more severe cases an acute flare up can be treated with a steroid injection into the affected joint. If your thumb is affected, supporting the joint with a splint also helps, but this is not practical for your fingers.

“If the problem is longstanding and the pain doesn’t respond to the above treatments then referral to a specialist surgeon is on the cards. They will advise you on the best treatment for the joint affected. Options include fusions or the stiffening of a joint, perhaps for the end joint of a digit, to joint replacements for the middle joints and the knuckles. If the base of your thumb is the problem then removing a bone where the thumb joins the wrist (a trapeziectomy) can be another option.

“It takes about three months to fully recover, but - with the exception of the fusion procedure – you will regain a good range of movement, strength and, most importantly, relief from pain. Your recovery will be overseen by a specially trained hand therapist who will show you exercises and provide splints when required to help in the early stages. Should you need to go down this line of treatment then you should regain the use of your hand in time for spring pruning!

“Another common cause of pain in the fingers and thumbs following extensive pruning is a trigger finger. This condition is caused by a lump developing on the tendon in the palm which then gets stuck intermittently. When this happens, the affected finger can click and lock, often painfully. Trigger finger is often treated with a steroid injection but if this doesn’t work, there is a minor operation performed while you are awake which frees the tendon. Recovery from this is very quick - most people can use their hand within a few days.”