Joint-Friendly Tips for Outdoor Chores

By Katie Alberts

Chores can be tough if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Here's a rundown of the best ways to prepare your home for winter—safely and without joint pain.

Rake leaves

Having one "dominant" leg is common in patients and can make raking difficult, says the physical therapist John Gallucci Jr., founder of JAG Physical Therapy. "The tendency is to push off your stronger leg over and over, taxing that limb. To prevent pain, try to alternate legs and take regular breaks."

Even better: "Invest in a leaf blower that does most of the work for you. They run as little as $40 and can save you a lot of strain."

Tip! Stock up on sidewalk salt now. That way you won't have to carry heavy bags down the driveway when it's already icy outside.

Move deck furniture

Start by putting on your winter boots, even if it isn't snowy or icy: "It may seem like going overboard, but the extra traction stabilizes your legs and keeps you from slipping on wet leaves or mud," says John D. Kelly IV, MD, associate professor of clinical orthopedic surgery at University of Pennsylvania. "Once you're ready, keep furniture as close to your body as possible, and never try to lift an item above your head. As a general rule, avoid carrying anything over 20 pounds—according to the laws of biomechanics, doing so exerts 80 pounds of force on your knees and 90 pounds on your hips!"

Plant bulbs

Many of my patients love gardening and swear by long-handled bulb planters," says Gallucci. "They're special tools that let you remove and replace soil while standing, so you don't have to squat. For gardening tasks that require kneeling, bring out an old sofa cushion or roll up a few towels for support."

Tip! When planning your garden, put plants that require less care (like perennials) in hard-to-reach places, and plant annuals where they're easily accessible.

Touch up decks or railings

If you reach too far to recover a dropped paintbrush or use your grabber to pick up something a few feet away from where you're standing, you can injure your shoulders, back or hips, or even slip and fall, Gallucci warns. "To prevent that, keep everything you need within arm's reach. Try using a tool belt or a carpenter's apron, and, if you're using a grabber, walk over to the item so it's by your foot, and then grab it."

Tip! If tools tend to slip out of your hands, wrap them with foam tubing (or several layers of duct tape) to make them easier to grasp.

Take clothes out from storage

It may be too late for this season, but if you're currently using large storage bins, swap them for small ones when storing your warm-weather wardrobe. "Move boxes slowly, one by one," says Dr. Kelly. Distributing the contents of larger boxes among smaller ones—no matter what they contain—is one of the easiest ways to protect against injury, he says.

Tip! Having bulky items delivered? Ask that they be mailed in smaller boxes when possible.

Climb a ladder

"If you have to climb above the third rung of a ladder, your chances of falling increase dramatically and it's better to ask someone else to do it," says Gallucci. Even when you're on the first and second rungs, be careful. "To keep your balance, don't lean too far to one side; your bellybutton should never go past one side of the ladder."

Tip! Never stand on furniture to reach something; this seemingly simple act is one of the most common causes of injuries.

Prune trees

Because it involves a motion we rarely use, reaching overhead to trim a tree or a tall hedge can lead to sharp pains and spasms. That's why Gallucci recommends gently stretching your shoulders before and after you start pruning, and making sure that your shears are sharp to spare yourself needless repetitive motions.

Published March 2012

Healthy Living
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