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Helenruth Schuette/Master Gardener: Can you dig it with arthritis?

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For adults there are two kinds of arthritis: Osteoarthritis, which causes a deterioration of cartilage causing the bones to rub against one another and Rheumatoid Arthritis, which is a build-up of fluid in the joints causing pain and inflammation.

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Some of the risk factors for arthritis include age, obesity, injury or overuse, genetics and muscle weakness. The primary symptoms of arthritis are stiffness, especially in the morning, and, of course, aches and pain. There is no cure but the symptoms can be managed.

I polled our group of master gardeners and learned the average age in the group is 65.8 years. The presence of arthritis impacting their gardening ranged from none to significant pain with garden work. Every joint was mentioned from fingers to knees. Yet this group persists, not wanting to give up gardening because of arthritis.

Following are some strategies to help prevent arthritis symptoms while in the garden:

-- Keep up with your health care provider’s recommendations to manage your overall arthritis as effectively as possible throughout the day, not just while you’re in the garden.

-- Change your routine. Most of us have a set pattern of chores in the garden and this usually "predates" arthritis. As we age, gain a little weight and exercise less, you may find your arthritis flares up after 45 minutes to an hour of steady garden work. A member of our group mentioned a tip about exercising all winter to keep "her garden muscles in shape." Exercise helps to lubricate the joints and build muscle to assist in supporting the joints. Try to take regular breaks, switch to another task or simply go get a cold drink and admire your work. Spread your garden chores throughout the week instead of plowing through them on a weekend. Now that the days are longer this is easier to do.

-- Buy garden tools with bigger handles. You can find tools geared for people with arthritis in almost any gardening catalogue. Look for tools awarded the "Ease-Of-Use" commendation from the Arthritis Foundation. As an alternative, if replacing tools is too expensive, tightly wrap pipe insulation around the handles to make them thicker and easier to handle.

-- Get help. This was mentioned by one of our group, as well. The dedicated gardener may want to do it all, but consider getting help with the heavy lifting such as moving rocks or heavy debris.

-- Some other positional tips include things such as working at waist level instead of bending and stooping. Our group found this position to cause the most discomfort. Use a small garden bench in situations where you’d otherwise be squatting down or bending low. Stand at a work table while potting plants. Using knee pads helps you move easily from sitting to kneeling. Avoid repeatedly reaching up to trim or prune by using longer-handled tools or an outdoor ladder to safely reach higher.

Above all, respect your body. Working through the pain may not be a good approach for people with arthritis. Pain signals tell us to "stop." When you experience a flare-up in symptoms, take things slow, returning to the garden after a rest. After all, some weeds are more easily seen and pulled when larger. Enjoy your garden "all the days of your life" despite your companion, Arthur Ritis.

To find reliable information about gardening and other horticultural topics, go to the University of Minnesota Extension website www. extension .umn.edu/gardeninfo/> Local master gardeners will answer your gardening questions via a voice-mail service. Call 444-7916, leaving your phone number, name and the nature of your question. A volunteer master gardener will give you a call to speak with you.

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