Well not technically. Gardener’s elbow is not a medical condition but it refers to a multitude of problems in the forearm and hand that you can experience at this time of year while catching up on yard work and planting your garden.
You may be familiar with back and shoulder pain that can accompany yard work but wrist, hand and elbow pain can stop you in your gardening tracks. It commonly happens at this time of year when you go full throttle into gardening activities after months of winter activity that did involve using these muscles with nearly as much effort or frequency.
Gardener’s elbow can be a combination of symptoms of tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow or both from gardening or yard work.
Pain in your inner elbow when your palm faces forward. This is where the tendons of your wrist and hand that help you flex your wrist and grip attach.
Pain in the outer elbow when your palm face forward. This is where the tendons and muscles of your wrist and hand that help to extend your wrist attach.
Symptoms of Gardener’s elbow could be either or both of the above. Pain can even be located in the n the thumb and finger when such overuse injuries can involve overuse of the finger and thumb muscles.
These conditions are due to overuse and repetition combined with lack of preparation for the muscles, tendons and other connective tissue in our body to do the work. Gardening and yard work often entail specific types of activity like shoveling, gripping tools, and carrying heavier weights/loads.
Carrying and lifting bags of soil, fertilizer, mulch, buckets of water. When your shoulders and larger muscles groups are not strong enough to support the weight, you may take up the slack with the small joint/muscles of the wrist and forearm.
Think about what you might do if you are carrying a bag that is slipping slowly out of your hands. Usually you will grip the bag harder and more forcefully with your fingers and hands. If you are doin this repeatedly without attention to how much you are gripping, the repeated gripping can lead to elbow pain.
Digging and pulling weeds can cause pain for many of the same reasons as above. We often apply more force in the hand and fingers in our attempts to get the work done or if the soil is hard and resistant to movement.
Repetitive gripping and holding can cause deconditioned muscle to get tight and painful because you are requiring them to repeatedly contract and relax with high frequency.
Here is usually the sequence of events that occur with overuse injuries:
Less than ideal postures can cause our muscles to compensate. We can also do small motions over and over causing muscles to hold increased tension.
When the muscles and tissues are tight for increased periods of time, we can’t just stretch the tissue out. The tissues that get stuck—this can happen over time but more quickly in areas that are tight and fatigued. With prolonged tension, comes decreased circulation to the area and decreased oxygen to the tissue. This causes the collagen fibers that make up the tissue to gradually stick together. The more adhesion, the more the muscle becomes restricted.
You can’t just relax the muscle at this point, you may need to coax it to change. This is where physical therapy can come into help. The extra time that you take at this stage can help you to prevent the next step.
In the beginning, the pain may be intermittent or fleeting. Stress to the tendon happens gradually over time. Pain in the initial red flag that something is wrong. If we pay attention and rest it, there can be recovery without damage though there still may be weakness. We usually choose to ignore the pain though and this is where the problem can come in. With continued stress, the healing process fails and can lead to a state of degeneration.
Unfortunately this is what most chronic tendon injury suffered are facing. If you had had pain for 4-6 months, you may be experiencing degeneration or this stage of dysfunction. Instead of regeneration, you get degeneration.
While RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) used to be standard protocol for these types of injuries, the jury is still out and recent research is supporting the following:
If you are experiencing these symptoms, physical therapy can help. Click here to set up a complementary phone consultation to discuss your symptoms with one of our therapists.
Reference: Web reference; Allen Willette. How Gardening Causes Elbow Pain and how to Treat it. Tennis Elbow Classroom. March 28, 2019
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