Pruning… Oh, the pain!

Dan HeltzerField Notes

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 force and repetition 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 cause of DOMS is unknown, but an explanation may include aspects of several competing theories such as inflammatory agents and damaged muscle or connective tissue.

Reduce Pruning Pain through Prevention

How can muscle soreness be prevented? Does stretching before or after pruning help? Evidently not. 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.

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

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 while pruning

A straight wrist yields more grip strength than a rounded one. Actually, the greatest mechanical advantage is achieved when the wrist is cocked back slightly. But working too long with a bent wrist 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.

Prune with alternate hands

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

Relax the jaw, neck, and shoulders

All of the musculoskeletal system is physically connected through a network of connective tissue called fascia. Muscles and bones are also behaviorally connected. Using 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 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 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, let them drop back into place, and then gently roll them around a bit.

Keep pruning tools sharp

If you’re tools aren’t working well, then you’re not either! The extra effort you expend today in pruning with dull tools will add to the soreness you feel tomorrow. Find out how to sharpen your tools here.

Prune with 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

Remember, it’s not necessary to do all of your pruning at once. Especially in the spring after a long winter, smaller, more frequent trips into the garden may prevent you from becoming sore. This also enables you to observe the many wonderful changes that are occurring on your property throughout the year!

Get help with pruning

Remember there are skilled professionals that can help! You can Hire a gardener or a landscape crew to do much of the pruning for you. GreenWeaver is always happy to give you a quote.

Post pruning care

If you end up with pain after pruning, what about a cure? What’s best: hot-pack; ice bath; Tiger Balm; Dit Da Jao? Well, there is no clear clinical data.

So, what to do? Whatever works! If stretching, or warming up has helped mitigate muscle soreness in the past, then continue doing those things. There’s no reason 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, but it’s difficult to obtain evidence to strongly support its effectiveness over other forms of treatment, such as a heating pad.

Take a hot shower

A shower right after working in the yard isn’t a bad idea, and a hot shower the day after warms 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 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 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 is probably 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, move the fist down the arm. Maintain constant pressure through the fist as you move it very slowly from elbow to wrist. You might enjoy the experience more if you were to lubricate the forearm with massage oil, lotion, or even corn starch. Done in this way, 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.