Pruning… Oh, the pain!

Let’s face it, pruning can be a real pain in the . . . wrist – or hand — or forearm. A couple hours spent squeezing a pruning tool with the force and repetition required to remove from a landscape its unwanted shoots and branches may cause muscle tenderness or even debilitating pain within 12-24 hours. This kind of post-pruning (or post-workout) discomfort is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). A definitive mechanism for its cause is unknown, but a valid explanation may include aspects of several competing theories, such as inflammatory agents on one hand and damaged muscle or connective tissue on the other.

How can muscle soreness be prevented? Does stretching before or after pruning help? Evidently not. While to my knowledge no clinical study has measured participants’ response specifically to pruning, preventing muscle pain after various forms of exercise has been researched extensively, and a couple of systematic reviews of the literature show little preventive effect of any kind of stretching , pre- or post-workout. All told, stretching only seems to work a little for some people in preventing DOMS.

What about warming up for 5-10 minutes? Same story, really. There is no broad-based evidence that warming up will prevent muscle soreness.

If not prevention, what about a cure? What’s best: hot-pack; ice bath; Tiger Balm; Dit Da Jao? Well, no clear clinical data here either.

So, what to do? Whatever works! If stretching, or warming up, or anything else has seemed to mitigate muscle soreness in the past, then continue doing those things. There’s no reason for a person to write off a practice simply because there isn’t good clinical data to support it. Massage, for example, most certainly helps me to recover better than anything else, but it’s difficult to obtain reliable evidence to strongly support its effectiveness over other forms of treatment, such as a heating pad.


In order to prevent sore, stiff muscles after pruning—and to protect muscles and nerves in the hands, wrist and forearms from potential chronic injuries—here are some things to keep in mind while pruning:

Keep the wrist(s) straight. A straight wrist yields more grip strength than a rounded one. Actually, given the angle of attachments of the muscles that cross the wrist, the greatest mechanical advantage is achieved when the wrist is cocked back slightly. But working too long with the wrist bent forward or back can irritate and inflame tendons and nerves which cross it.

Check to see that the wrist is in neutral by holding the hand out as if to shake hands with someone. When you are grasping tools, try to establish a similar, neutral wrist position, and try to maintain it while working.

If possible, alternate hands. When using a one-handed clipping tool, use it for awhile in one hand, then switch the tool to the other hand and use it to work. Then switch back. Change hands as often as conveniently possible.

Relax the jaw. Relax the neck. Relax the shoulders. All of the musculoskeletal system is physically connected through a network of connective tissue called fascia. Muscles and bones are also behaviorally connected: use of one group of muscles often leads to the habitual activation of others, regardless of their need to perform a task. Therefore unnecessary tightness above the arms may unduly irritate muscles in the forearm, wrist, and hand, and compromise their ability to optimally generate strength. Likewise using hands and arms might involve the shoulders and neck in ways which are inefficient, and perhaps painful. Finally, tension in jaw, neck and shoulder muscles may alter posture in ways which predispose a particular nerve (the median nerve) to injury by pinching it against bones or between muscles at particular places from the neck down to the fingers.  In a word, relaxation might help prevent injury, make work more efficient—and more pleasant, too!

The simplest way to relax a muscle is to contract it, let it go, and then use it very gently. To relax the shoulders, for example, shrug them up to the ears for a couple of seconds, let them drop back into place, and then gently roll them around a bit.

Keep tools sharp and well lubricated. If you’re tools aren’t working well, then you’re not either! The extra effort you expend today in cutting back perennials with dull clippers or trimming grasses with stiff shears will add to the soreness you feel tomorrow.

Use the right tool. To clip anything up to 1 ½ inches in diameter, use bypass pruners or lopping shears. For even thicker branches, use a folding handsaw. And anvil pruners or loppers are best used to make easier work of cutting back dead wood.

Don’t do too much. Especially in the spring if you have been inactive all winter, remember, it’s not necessary to do it all at once. Smaller, more frequent trips into the garden may prevent you from becoming sore while enabling you to observe the many wonderful changes that are occurring on your property throughout the year.


The day after pruning:

Take a hot shower. A shower right after working in the yard isn’t a bad idea either, but a hot shower the day after is recommend to warm up the skin before a massage.

Massage the muscles in the palms, fingers, and forearms. To massage the palm, use the thumb of one hand to press into and slowly glide through the fleshy parts of the palm of the other hand. Continue to glide the thumb with pressure along the palm side of the fingers.

The thumb could also be used to massage the forearm, but I recommend using your fist instead. Most of the stiff forearm muscles attach at the inner (medial) elbow and extend down the forearm to the wrist and fingers. But giving yourself a nice deep massage from the crease of the elbow to the wrist would probably be enough to do wonders for what ails you. It’s easily done. Put the arm to be massaged onto a flat, firm surface with an upward facing hand. Make a fist with the hand of the opposite extremity. Use this as a kind of tool and lean it into the arm; using the weight of the body to press into the flesh. After that deep contact is established, start to move the fist down the arm, maintaining constant pressure through the fist as you move it very slowly from elbow to wrist. Inhale deeply through your nose as you start at the elbow, and exhale slowly as you massage along the length of the muscles toward your wrist. You might enjoy the experience more if you were to lubricate the forearm with massage oil, lotion, cream, or even corn starch. Done in this way, and by its supposed effects on muscle, connective tissue, and blood circulation, massage may remedy some of the structural and biochemical causes associated with DOMS. More importantly, it may make pruning less painful.


Disclaimer: The advice in this article is meant to help prevent and remedy minor aches and pains associated with pruning plants in the garden. Please consult your physician prior to physical activity outdoors and if you experience more severe or chronic pain post-pruning.