Farming with Arthritis

The typical day for a farmer starts with chores, which usually include bending and kneeling to milk cows, lifting and twisting to feed animals, climbing in and out of tractors, and cleaning the barn. Though it may be enjoyable to spend time taking care of the animals and spending the day in the fields, doing these chores can provoke pain from arthritis, chronic inflammation of the joints, making it more difficult to complete them.

Luckily for Wisconsin farmers, Wisconsin is home to the Arthritis Foundation and many resources to aid farmers facing the challenges associated with arthritis and farm work. Jessica Graser, Arthritis Foundation’s Program and Event Coordinator, stated the astounding fact that over 1 million people in Wisconsin suffer from arthritis. Another astonishing fact is there are more than 100 identified types of arthritis, and although research is trying to narrow down the cause of each type, there are no answers yet.

Arthritis can impact anyone, including children; with 6,000 children affected in Wisconsin alone. Unfortunately, there is not a test to determine if someone is more susceptible to arthritis prior to it affecting the person. Of course, there are environmental situations that lead to certain types of arthritis. For example, when the joints are over-used on a daily basis, like from the work of many dairy farmers, the cartilage is reduced, leading to bones coming in contact with one another. This is what causes the joint pains known as arthritis.

The most common arthritis seen in farmers, ranchers, and farm workers is osteoarthritis. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation’s research has shown being in the farming occupation for just a year greatly increases a farmer’s risk for arthritis. Many studies have shown a direct correlation between increased risk and high-impact farm work that is heavy on the weight-bearing joints, including the knees, hips, feet, and spine. It’s easy to see how osteoarthritis impacts the farmers who are milking cows or caring for livestock on a long term basis with countless trips for watering, bending and lifting feed, along with jumping out of the tractor.

Arthritis can present itself in many ways; the most common are pain, swelling, limited mobility, and stiffness in the joints. This pain ranges in severity from bearable to excruciating depending on the person, type of arthritis, and its progression. The onset of the pain is also unique to each individual; it could be a stretch trying to get into the tractor that aggravates arthritis in the knees or gardening that puts stress on the wrist and elbows. The symptoms, progression, and management styles are all based on the person; no two are the same.

Managing arthritis can help reduce, or slow the development of the arthritis, but it can be a tough task to find the method, or combination, that works. Consulting a physician should be the first step in your arthritis management. After discussing methods, the Arthritis Foundation suggests the next step is to evaluate the work space. Do you try to rush through the work because the pain is difficult to handle? Are you using the proper form when bending, lifting, or stretching? Getting on an arthritis management regimen, slowing down and watching your form as you perform chores and other work tasks can be the difference between a day of pain or peace.

Another common method doctors suggest to aid in reducing stiffness and other effects of arthritis is hot and cold therapy. Starting or finishing the day with a warm shower can ease stiffness in the joints. Also, using a heating pad on the area that is affected by arthritis can be beneficial to alleviate some of the pain in the muscles and joints, whether it is the knees, back, or shoulders. Cold therapy should be used if there is an injury or when the pain starts. It is suggested to use ice or an ice pack for 15 to 20 minutes on and off throughout the day to continue pain relief.

No one wants to be told that they should be exercising more, including farmers who are working tirelessly all day. But the exercises that are suggested by most specialists are to ease the symptoms of arthritis, and many may also help with stress reduction. The exercises include stretches that relax the muscles and joints and endurance activities to reduce stiffness. Graser advises people with arthritis not to stop at the end of the day; don’t sit down in the recliner chair and fall asleep there. Instead, take a walk. The saying “a body in motion stays in motion” rings true, especially for those living with arthritis.

Though there may not be any one method to prevent arthritis, there are a few steps that farmers can take to aid in preventing it. Start with working on the farm at a steady pace, using the best form possible when bending, lifting, or moving anything. That includes the chores that seem to be easy. Some might see this as “taking the easy way,” but it is important to protect your joints early. It’s also important to know your own strength, and be completely honest. If you need another pair of hands, ask.

Set up an appointment to see your doctor right away if you think you may be experiencing pain from arthritis. There is not a pain that is too small.


Additional Resources:

The Arthritis Foundation: