Saturday, November 17, 2012

Is Gardening Harmful or Helpful to Our Bodies?

That’s a question I’ve been struggling with lately. There is no question that gardening is helpful to the mind. It helps to deal with stress, keeping me calm and centered. It gives me a sense of place and keeps me “grounded” to the earth and nature. But does it help or hurt the body? I imagine with any sport or activity, there are right ways and wrong ways to do things. In my yoga classes we focus on the right way to do each posture to avoid injury. There isn’t anyone out there telling us the right way to garden in order to prevent injuries. Should we warm up first? Should we hold a shovel or trowel a certain way? Is it better to weed with one hand or switch between the two?

I first hurt my left elbow in the early spring of 2010. It was the beginning of the “fence farce,” which I’ve mentioned several times in my blog. The neighbor behind us said he was going to put up a fence and asked if he wanted his friend to help us remove the overgrown hedge we had there. The guy gave me a good price, so we did it. He didn’t get all the roots, though, and I spent the rest of that season digging them out. I distinctly remember the day I hurt my elbow. I was digging out those roots, slamming the shovel down, jumping up and down on it, and snap! Something moved in my elbow in a way that it didn’t normally move. I actually said out loud, “What the hell did I just do?” I knew whatever it was, it probably wasn’t good. It started hurting off and on after that and kept getting worse. I was distracted by my garden and by my cat who had just been diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t until after we had Monty put to sleep that I finally thought I better go see my doctor. He sent me to a sports medicine doctor, who took an MRI, told me I had messed up my tendon on the outer side of my elbow and had an inflamed ulnar nerve on the inner side of my elbow and sent me for physical therapy. After four months of PT, my therapist gave up on me. It was somewhat better, but still caused problems after yoga or gardening. My doctor tried a cortisone shot, but that just caused it swell and made it hurt worse. I’ve spent the last two and a half years icing it after activity and taking ibuprofen, but that at least keeps it under control.

In the meantime, the ulnar nerve got worse. It went from off and on numbness in my left arm/hand/two smallest fingers to constant numbness. Tried cortisone for that, but it didn’t do much. Then the pain started to get pretty bad on the inner side of the elbow. I thought it was just the nerve acting up. Turns out I messed up the tendon on that side now, too.

I was told about a year ago by two different sports medicine doctors that I should look into surgery, but I wasn’t ready yet. Now that the pain has gotten worse and it has started to keep me from being able to do things I normally can do in yoga and in the yard, I’m ready. I saw two different surgeons and it looks like the nerve is the thing I can’t let go or it could cause permanent damage. So, on January 2nd, I will have surgery on the nerve and the tendon that is right there by that nerve. I’m nervous. What if it doesn’t get better? What if it gets worse after the surgery? What if I can’t garden? Boy, I can’t even think about that. Gardening’s what keeps me sane.

The three problems with my left elbow are called “chronic tennis elbow,” “golfer’s elbow,” and “cupital tunnel syndrome” (aka ulnar nerve entrapment). They are considered three separate problems. So what’s it called when you have all three problems? I say it should be called “gardener’s elbow.” How could I have messed up one elbow so much? Could these injuries have been prevented had I been taught the “right” way to garden? I wonder. Or is this just a sign that I’m getting old? Probably.

There are certainly some bright sides: It’s my non-dominant side. Boy am I thankful for that. Also, it could be a lot worse. Another bright side, I’m having this surgery done during the winter and not during the gardening season. Hopefully by the time March and April get here, I’ll be in less pain and can do the many spring chores that will need to be done to get the garden ready.

I have always valued and taken pride in my independence. Instead of independence, Brian calls it my stubborn streak. (He claims all the women in my family have it!) What’s the difference between the two? I think independence is wanting to, and being able to, do things on your own to feel a sense of accomplishment and build confidence. Stubbornness? Well, maybe that’s when independence is taken too far. Maybe stubbornness is when you can’t draw the line between “I can do this” and “this is more than I should do on my own.” Perhaps now is the time for me to learn that difference and honor it. In yoga we are taught to “honor your body” and “listen to your body” — not to let ego take over, making you do more than you should. Maybe now it’s time to apply that to the rest of my life.

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