The Green, but "Injured" Thumb

Most of us don’t think of overuse injuries when starting a new hobby.  Especially those hobbies that involve what we perceive as less strenuous activities.  But, did you know that planting and tending to your garden can predispose you to some of the same injuries of as athletes such as golfers and rowers?  We always advise you to start a new activity at a gradual pace, increasing duration and intensity slowly. The same is true for gardeners anxious to get digging into the fresh spring soil. Don’t attempt to clear all the winter debris in a single day, or plant the flats of annuals brought home from the nursery all at one time.  This is why they have the yard pickup team arrive at your curb over a 6-week timeframe instead of 1x/season.  Instead, undertake these new hobbies at moderate intervals and take a few minutes to stretch prior.

Typically, the pain of sprains, tendinitis and even arthritis is mild at first and often ignored. However, these ailments can develop into serious conditions if left untreated. Here are a few common gardening-related problems that would require medical attention:


The repetitive motion of opening and closing shears or other hand tools can lead to a painful triggering or locking of the fingers or thumb. The condition is caused when the “eyelet” that holds the flexor tendons in place along the finger or thumb interferes with the smooth gliding of the tendons through it. Patients may feel a pain in the palm or the finger and, in severe cases, the finger is stuck downward and requires “unlocking” with the help of the other hand.  In addition, using vibrating tools and blowers excessively can cause significant vibration concerns. This adds pressure on the median nerve, which could potentially lead to pre-carpal tunnel like symptoms.


Persistent pain in the wrist could develop from repeated motion of the wrist. In De Quervain’s tendinitis, the tendons that attach at the base of the thumb become irritated or constricted, causing painful swelling along the wrist. Heavy raking can cause pain in the forearm about three inches above the wrist, a condition called Intersection Syndrome. It results from the overuse of the wrist extensor tendons, which rub against one another as the wrist repeatedly bends backward. The friction caused by the rubbing tendons leads to irritation, inflammation and painful swelling.


Tennis and golfer’s elbow (medial and lateral epicondylitis) are painful conditions involving the tendons that attach to the humerus bone at the elbow. With tennis elbow, repeated bending of the wrist while gripping something like a rake weakens tendons attached to the outer, or lateral, side of the elbow. Similarly, weakened tendons attached to the inner, or medial, side of the elbow and can lead one to suffer from Golfer’s Elbow.

In most cases the overuse-related conditions described above can be resolved with activity modification, ice and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. If the pain persists more than five days or so, however, it would be wise to consult with a physician who can assess whether bracing, physical therapy or other treatments are needed.


One other gardening-related risk to mention is Sporotrichosis. Also known as Rose Thorn Disease, Sporotrichosis is caused by fungus found in soil, rose thorns, hay, moss and twigs and usually enters the body through a thorn prick. The fungus is more closely related to mold found in stale bread or yeast used to brew beer than to bacteria. Once the mold spores enter the skin, the disease can take days or months to develop. The first symptom is usually a painless bump or lesion that is pink or purple in color. In most cases, the mold spreads to the lymph nodes. Over time, new nodules can develop from your fingers all the way up the arm, becoming open sores or ulcers that are susceptible to infection. The disease is rarely life threatening, but it is important to seek medical attention. Left untreated, the ulcerative lesions can develop into a chronic condition that can persist for several years. All the more reason to wear garden gloves.

(Some content borrowed from WAG, May 2, 2o17)