For production farmers, slowing down or taking a break from daily work when dealing with pain from arthritis is not always an option. “Taking a break requires a change in thinking,” said Amber Wolfe, AgrAbility coordinator at the Arthritis Foundation. “Farmers must accept that they have to take breaks.” Wolfe isn’t handing out advice without first-hand knowledge of what’s involved in production agriculture.
She’s a farmer with osteoarthritis and knows that farmers are likely to simply keep going despite having pain. “Farming and ranching is a 24-hour, seven day occupation,” she said, “There’s a lot of stress, fatigue and worry. Those aren’t things people think about with arthritis, but there is research that shows that high levels of fatigue are related to arthritis pain and flare-ups.” Osteoarthritis affects range of motion, it can cause pain and tenderness and in some cases — swelling.
Although farmers tend to simply keep going and work through pain, Wolfe says it’s important to be aware of which actions cause pain and which joints are affected. “Once you identify the action that’s causing pain, it’s easy to start finding options for controlling that pain,” said Wolfe. “Many farmers have difficulty accepting that they might have to change their routine and farm life becomes a balancing game.” Overextension of the joints, whole-body vibration that comes with operating machinery, repetitious movement — all contribute to arthritic pain.
Wolfe suggests that farmers look at potential ways to streamline farm tasks to reducing overall stress; anything to lower stress will help reduce pain from arthritis.
Dairy farms with modern milking parlors usually have anti-fatigue mats to lessen the impact of constant standing. However, other aspects of the milking procedure can only be controlled by the individual. Milking personnel should know how to lift properly, maintain the body in proper posture and avoid twisting movements whenever possible. Switching up repetitive tasks so that individual workers are not always performing the same task.
Wolfe noted that concrete surfaces in barns or outdoor lots can also contribute to arthritis pain. Farmers of all ages should wear appropriate footwear to reduce overall fatigue and stress on ankles, knees and hips. Always remain aware of potentially slippery surfaces that may cause a fall. It isn’t worth tackling or grappling with a large animal on a slick surface, especially if arthritis pain or stiffness is keeping you from using your body correctly.
The physicality involved in assisting a birthing process can be extremely tough on joints, but the results of that heavy, forceful work may not be evident for many years. On most farms, presence and possible assistance at birthing is not a task that can be avoided or altered, but proper stretching and wearing a back brace might help reduce some of the potential damage and pain.
All farmers, whether or not they have physical symptoms of arthritis, should be aware of situations in which animals might become excited or crowded and be prepared to move. If a farmer’s movement is impaired by arthritis, they should not work in situations that require fast or sudden movements, trying to grab an object or an animal can cause additional joint damage.
On beef cattle farms, weaning time offers potential for injury or joint stress. When separating offspring from their mothers, temperaments may be unpredictable and lead to a greater risk of injury. “Being aware of surroundings and using chutes, restraints and corral systems is important,” said Wolfe. “If you have arthritis, your grip strength might not be what is needed and your ability to reach or grab might not be what it was, so be aware of those limitations,” Wolfe added.
Farmers who exhibit livestock have even more opportunity for joint stress and strain through the fitting process. Constant kneeling and bending to clip and put the finishing touches on an animal for the show ring can result in long-term damage. Most fitters use anti-fatigue mats, which help significantly, but clippers are heavy to hold and vibration can cause damage to joints and nerves in the hand. Anti-vibration gloves can help provide a degree of protection against joint damage.
One last thing a farmer can do, although it’s difficult for many, is to ask for help. “There’s usually someone who is willing to help,” said Wolfe. “In raising livestock, there aren’t many jobs that are truly one-man jobs. There are tools and restraints that help someone work independently, but sometimes it just can’t be done alone.”