Q: I have arthritis and I get sore and stiff from yard and house hold work; I thought physical activity was good for me, so why do I feel sore or stiff after physical activity?
A: Whether we do it because we like it - or because we have to - housework and yard work can cause soreness, stiffness, and pain to flare up, leaving us wondering why or if we should engage in such physical activity again.
Physical activity is good for us, even if you have arthritis, and yard and house work is no exception. However, just like any other form of physical activity or exercise you may do in a gym, you can overdo it. And if, for example, yard work is something you engage in only sporadically, then you may experience particular soreness in your joints and surrounding muscles shortly afterwards.
There are many reasons why you may feel sore during and after house or yard work. The most common reasons include delayed onset of muscles soreness (DOMS), and time spent in a position, overreaching or awkward movements.
DOMS is a very common phenomena that occurs when muscles are exposed to a load or new/repetitive movement they aren't used to. The symptoms of DOMS include muscle soreness and stiffness up to 48-72 hours post physical activity. Muscles need time, through progressive overload, to get used to certain a load, repetition or movement, and if you're a "weekend warrior" (i.e., don't engage in a lot of heavy house or yard work often), then DOMS is a likely contributor your next day muscle pain and stiffness. The presence of DOMS does not mean you have injured yourself or made your arthritis worse, it is simply a side effect of physical activity your body isn't used to- or specifically, a side effect of physical activity your muscles are not used to.
Another reason why you may be sore after house and yard work is from holding a certain position for an extended period of time, for example, a bent over back, bent knees, sitting etc. All these movements are perfectly fine and safe to perform, however, if a joint is held in a position for too long it can become a little irritated- especially if you have arthritis. Joints, and the surrounding tissue, don't really like being held or placed in any one position for a long period of time, particularly a bent or flexed one. They prefer movement to ensure good circulation of blood in the surrounding tissues and movement of synovial fluid in the joint- which is important for cartilage nourishment, and lubrication. When joints are held in a bent or flexed positon, especially while under load or weight (e.g., squatting down or sitting on folded legs), for a long period of time, the circulation of synovial fluid in the joint is compromised. When you go to stand up or move out the position you may find your joint is a little sore or stiff, until the synovial fluid is moved around the joint again and lubricating the surfaces.
The bottom line is, when it comes to feeling sore and stiff after work or yard work, you likely haven't injured yourself. However, if you are in considerable pain after a fall, accident or moving in an awkward way when doing either of these activities, seek the advice of your GP or other treating professional.
Here are a few tips to reduce pain and stiffness post doing your house and yard chores.
Stay well hydrated, especially with yard work in the summer time. Staying hydrated may help with better recovery perhaps to even reduce muscle cramps (if you sweated a lot).
Be mindful of how you may be standing, lifting, moving, using cleaning or yard equipment etc.
- Get right in front of what you are lifting. Try to avoid overreaching or twisting for the object
- Squat by bending the knees and flexing at the hips, pushing your buttocks backwards. While lifting without bending your knees or hips is perfectly safe, if you are loading the lift and doing so repetitively, to gain extra mechanical strength, bending your knees and hips will help
- Hold the object you are lifting close to your body, and when you set it down, do the same thing in reverse
- Try not to over reach, be that with the vacuum, mower or hedge clippers etc.
- Remember to move your feet, have your knees slightly bent and keep a wide stance when vacuuming (or similar). Your feet aren't glued to the floor so you can move with your chosen piece of equipment. If the object is awkward, large or heavy, you may like to widen your stance
- If digging in the garden try not sit on folded legs for too long
- For hard to reach places look into purchasing, hiring or borrowing equipment extenders/adaptors or equipment made for hard to reach places instead of over-reaching or standing on something unstable
- If you are on your knees, place a folded towel, thin pillow or padded knee guard underneath them so it's a little more comfortable
Special equipment aids
If you have arthritis in your hand or fingers, you may like to look into specially made equipment - as seen in the picture. Such equipment will help reduce mechanical load or movement on the effected joints in your hand in the hopes to reduce pain and stiffness.
TLC for your muscles
Look after your joints and muscles afterwards. There are many 'at home' things you could try e.g., warm showers or baths- you could try some Epson salts with your bath. You could try some gentle stretching afterwards, heat packs or ice (depending on what works for you) on sore muscles, you could even take some paracetamol (if within your scope to do so).
Take a Break
Pacing is great way to reduce the severity of pain or stiffness felt after house or yard work. That is, don't try to do the entire task in one day. People often overdo it or worse, hurt themselves, because they try to fit a large project into their one, free day of the weekend. Whether you can and should take on a large task in one day depends on your fitness level and how easily fatigued you get. Instead, you may want to just clean the bathrooms one day instead of the whole house! Or just do the front yard work and leave the back for another day instead of taking on your whole yard.
A Little Planning Goes a Long Way
- Exercises are not just for general fitness - planned exercise and the benefits gained (cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, balance, coordination etc) certainly transfer to our ability to do other physical activities like yard and house work. So, engaging in regular exercise or physical activity will prime the body your for yard and house work, and will likely reduce the muscle stiffness or soreness you may feel afterwards
- Since most house and yard work involves repeated bending, it is a great idea to counteract those movements by taking regular breaks and even perform movements or stretches that oppose them
- Sometimes it may be best if you also utilise additional supports, perhaps you have a loved one that can help you accomplish your tasks fast or with less work.
If you have any tricks or tips about how you garden or how you complete house work that you feel helps you or reduces pain/stiffness for you, please share them with us!