I developed some very scary problems with my hands a couple of months after beginning to do a lot of lawnmowing. I have been working on this for awhile and have learned alot. Since much of this may be useful to others with hand problems, I will tell my story here in some detail.
In the spring of the year 2000, at the age of 44, I began to mow lawns for a living. I wasn't doing 8 hours a day of mowing, like a lot of guys do, I was advertising gardenwork as well and found myself doing a lot of weeding of garden beds, trimming hedges, light tree trimming and various odd jobs. The main thing was that I wanted to be self-employed. I was probably mowing an average of a lawn a day, maybe two at the busiest time (though there would be days when I did a lot more). It was probably about 2 months into it when I began to notice that my fingers were a bit stiff when I woke up in the morning. This happened every day. The stiffness would go away by itself within an hour or two. Within a few weeks this had become a bit more noticeable. On waking I would be unable to bend my fingers. I could not make my hand into a fist. I couldn't hold a toothbrush. It would take one or two hours before this would go away. Then I would be fine for the rest of the day and able to work. The stiffness would return at night, an hour or two before going to bed. This continued every day even on days when I did not work, even if I didn't work for 3 or 4 days. I discovered that I could use my hand grip exercisers to make the stiffness go away faster in the morning. My fingers would be very stiff all night. If I woke up and needed to grab a pillow, it would not be easy. This began to concern me quite a bit and I started to study the problem.
I started reading about arthritis and it sounded like this was what the problem was. After reading about arthritis on the Internet I started to buy books on arthritis. This was very scary because almost all the books seemed to indicate that this was just something that happens to people when they get older and there isn't much to be done about it. I was reading about joint damage and wondering how far my damage had progressed. Some of these books talked about nutritional factors and some seemed to suggest that some supplements, such as glucosamine, could be almost a miracle cure. So I started buying and taking glucosamine/chondoitin, MSM, omega 3/6/9 and various other things. Nothing made the slightest bit of difference. I hate going to doctors but I went to see an acupucturist who several people had recommended. They seemed to think he would get right to the bottom of it and fix me right up. He stuck needles in me and prescribed some Chinese pills. I went back for another visit. More needles, no change. Some people suggested that it was a circulation problem caused by incorrect sleeping. I read some about this and found that sleeping on too hard of a mattress can cause symtoms that mimic arthritis. (I also read that hundreds of other things can mimic arthritis). I had gotten a new mattress about 6 months before and it was a bit firm (I thought that was healthier - some people sleep on a hard floor). I worried about that for awhile and wound up getting a mattress pad from Sears. Just a big piece of foam to put on top of the mattress. It seemed to give enough padding to rule this out as the problem.
It seemed obvious to me that the problem had to do with using mowers and weedeaters, yet thousands of people use these machines for ten times the hours that I do and they aren't complaining. Still it had to be related. In researching furthur I came across the suggestion that it could be Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. The main symptoms of CTS are tingling in the thumb and first two fingers. My problem seemed to have started with the pinky and ring finger before progressing to all the fingers, so I didn't pursue this too much. I also came across mention of a scary condition called HAVS (Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome), also called white finger, caused by using vibrating power tools. The fingers can turn white especially in the cold and the condition has to do with micro-damage to blood vessels and nerves. This didn't seem to quite match my symptoms. Meanwhile, my hands are getting worse. They took longer and longer to get back to normal in the morning and started to hurt a little bit through the day. I continued my desperate research.
I came upon a book while looking around on Amazon. Conquering Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Other Repetitive Stress Injuries by Sharon Butler. This turned out to be an amazing book and the turning point in my understanding of what was going on. I highly recommend this book to anyone suffering from CTS or any kind of upper body RSI. I got a lot of hope from reading this book. The author explains in great detail how CTS and RSI are caused by tension in connective tissues and how this tension can be released by working on gentle stretches. Most of the book consists of specific stretching exercises. She also explains that the repetitive motion itself is not the cause, but that it is the repetitive motion in conjuction with misalligned bodies that causes problems. Once while rereading the book I came across an exercise I had overlooked before. This involves lacing the three large fingers of one hand in between the fingers of the other outstretched hand and slowly closing the fingers. I found that I could remove the stiffness in my fingers very quickly after getting up each morning by using this exercise. This gave me hope that I could fix my problem.
I finally came to understand that my problem was just a matter of deep chronic muscular tension combined with more recent tension. This can be easy to understand but not so easy to fix. But the important thing is just to understand what is happening. Then you can go about working on it.
In my case, the patterns of chronic muscular tension are quite deep. I was diagnosed with scoliosis (lateral curvature of the spine) as a child. Another doctor later said I had kyphosis (another type of spinal curvature - basically slumped over with rounded shoulders). I had been practicing yoga pretty intensely for a few years and was very well aware of the deep tension I carried. So I knew that it would not be easy to get back to normal. In fact I had never really been "normal" anyway.
At some point my wrists started to bother me and I had to stop going to yoga classes. I was practicing Ashtanga yoga - the hardcore stuff. This caused me to start practicing more intensely (but more gently) on my own at home. I started to collect tons of books on yoga, stretching, and various approaches to physical fitness.
Later I got another book on CTS by Elizabeth Montgomery. This one also has lots of exercises and in addition recommends working out with very light weights. I think strengthening is just as important as stretching, but I think it may be important to work with pretty light weights (or none at all) as long as there is a problem involving any pain. There is a difference in working out therapeutically and just working out normally. This applies to stretching and yoga as much as it does to working with weights. Once the condition is under control, it is possible to work more intensely to build up strength. It has been hard to get used to the fact that I have to work gently even if I am working out seriously.
I have been amazed at the things I have found in common as I explore different types of physical conditioning. In the CTS books there are several neck exercises and some shoulder rolls. I find these same exercises in Callanetics, in a book by Pavel Tautsoline (Beyond Stretching) and in some yoga books (Joints and Gland Exercises Swami Rama).
At first I was focused on the finger joints themselves, thinking that the fingers were reacting directly to vibration from the machines. Later I came to understand that the finger tension was related to tension in the hands, wrists, forearms, upper arms, neck, shoulders and back. So I kept on working with yoga and stretches and collecting more books.
I found a couple of really significant books around the beginnning of 2001: Pain Free by Pete Egoscue and 7 Steps to a Pain-Free Life by Robin McKenzie. Also Its Not Carpal Tunnel Syndome - by Suparna Damany and Jack Bellis.
Over the winter the stiffness in my fingers improved a bit. There were mornings when I would get up and have no stiffness in my left fingers and just a little stiffness in the right hand fingers.
Then one day in March I used a chainsaw to clear some limbs off of a roof. I was standing on the roof and had to hold the saw with one hand while holding the end of the limb with the other hand (so it would not fall on the roof). Normally you don't use a chainsaw with one hand, but sometimes you have to. This is a special light-weight saw made to be used with one hand (Echo CS-3000, weighs about 9 lbs). I was on the roof for maybe 30 minutes and used the saw on the ground a while too. The next day my right elbow was very sore. I could not sqeeze my hand grippers even one time. I can usually squeeze them 100 times. My elbow remained sore for many days. The next week I did a lot of leaf raking - I mean hours a day. This did not help to rest the arms. Then one day I used a log splitter. An old man operated the controls while I placed the logs and tossed the split pieces aside (throwing one peice with each arm). That night I had the most pain I have ever had during this whole ordeal.
My right arm was sore from the wrist to the shoulder, mainly in the forearm and around the elbow. When I went to bed it got worse and I could not sleep. After an hour or so I got up and tried to alleviate the pain. I got out my best books, Sharon Butler, Egoscue and Fold and Hold and looked up the specific exercises for elbow and shoulder pain. I worked on it for a couple of hours until I could go back to bed. Within an hour I was back up with intense pain. I went back to the books and kept on doing stretches until I was able to go to bed and get a couple of hours of sleep. I have not had such pain since then but man, I sure did get an idea of what a lot of people are going through who have pain all the time. I have heard people say that they could not figure out how to use some of the books with stretching exercises because they could not find any position to start with that did not cause a stretch. That's how it was for me that night. There wasn't any way I could hold my arm that didn't seem to already be a painful stretch. The exercises I mainly did were the wall clock from Egoscue and Sharon Butler's door frame stretch. From this night on, I was more concerned with the forearms, wrists and elbows than with the stiffness in the fingers. (Looking back, I think I could have helped myself more that night with self-massage).
Still being very committed to self-healing, I decided it was time to also enlist the help of some selected therapists.
I went to see a chiropractor. Mainly because my sister was going to him and I was offered a special introductory deal that included full spinal x-rays. I got a few treatments, which may have been helpful, but seemed insignificant. I did not want to pay to keep getting these adjustments. But it was worth it to see the x-rays. My back is quite crooked.
I had found out about a Feldenkrais teacher in my area and tried to contact her. She was out of town, working in Denver. She works with another Feldenkrais teacher there together with a team of doctors who do surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. I got an appointment with her when she came back to town. This was very interesting. She told me not to expect her to "rock my world" with just a session or two. Its a subtle thing and has a gradual long-term effect. For this session I was lying on my back on a table while she moved my legs and arms and shoulders around. We did a before and after comparison of how my body made contact with the table. There was quite a difference after an hour or so, with my back way more settled into the table.
I went to see a bodyworker I have known for a long time. I traded some work in exchange for a session. (Chopped up a large limb with a chainsaw - I used an electric chainsaw which is very lightweight and has little vibration). Wow - this is what I have been needing - he used his elbows and knuckles and worked a lot around my shoulders, shoulder blades, and neck. I decided to go back and see him every couple of weeks. This convinced me that massage was a very important therapy. With the yoga background and the positive experience with Sharon Butler's book, I had been mainly focused on stretching up until then.
So then I started to work with self-massage a lot. First I worked on my arms with my fingers. Then I started using a massage tool called a Dolphin-Massager, which is a hard plastic dolphin. You can dig in with its fins. Then I found out about the ArmAid. I got one i April 2001. I was cautioned to start gradually, using it just a few minutes at a time. I used it about 5 minutes the first day I got it. The next day I used it for over an hour. There is nothing like this tool. This is the way to get deep into the arms. This gave me new hope. I also got a Thera-Cane at the same time. This is also a great tool for self-massage. You can really dig in to points on your back that you can't normally get to, like between your shoulder blades.
While I don't think that ergonomics is the main consideration in all this, it can be important. Thinking that weedeaters are my biggest concern, I got a new machine - the Robin BH2500. This is a 4-cycle weedeater, which is still a new thing, most have 2-cycle engines. The 4-cycles will become more common as environmental legislation comes along since 4-cycles are way less poluting. I got this machine because 4-cycles also have way less vibration. This may make a big difference for me. I also adjusted the trigger handle to better accomodate using the weedeater for edging, which normally involves turning it a bit, keeping the wrist bent. So this will help me keep my wrist straight. I have been told (by the inventor of ArmAid) that vibration is over-rated as a cause of RSI. I think he said something like "Its all in the grip". I have come across the idea before that you need to keep a loose grip when using hand tools. A lot of people hold tools very tightly without realizing it. Update 2016 - I long ago started using Honda 4-cycle weedeaters, which I still use exclusively.
Well after about four months, the tendonitis in the elbow finally went away. So now I'm back to focussing on the stiff fingers (which are slowly getting better) and just trying to work on my whole body so that I can do physical work without hurting myself. Starting to get into weight training, which seemed out of the question when the elbow was hurting. I'm studying standard bodybuilding techniques but I am working with very light weights, which is not usually recommended in the literature on strength training. Also working with yoga and qigong (a new and exciting interest). I continue to read and study about all kinds of approaches to physical healing. Have been lazy about self-massage but that is always an option. I like to work with tools such as the ArmAid, the Thera-Cane and the Dolphin Massager. No longer go to see the bodyworker. I would probably continue to get some kind of massage therapy if I thought I could afford it but once you get things under control, you can make good improvement on your own.
As of Spring, 2004, I don't really have any ongoing issues with my hands or arms, although there is still the potential for problems, since I still have a lot of work to do on removing tons of deep chronic tension. I am still doing lots of physical work with unfriendly tools every day. So I'm still working at self-healing but worrying a lot less.
UPDATE 04/03/16 - I just turned 60 and I'm still doing physical labor daily. Every spring when I start mowing more, my hands and arms might get a bit sore from using the weedeater, but that passes. I no longer have chronic issues with pain in hands or arms. Still plenty of physical therapy to work on. You have to work harder and harder to improve and maintain as you get older.
This page contains my basic recommendations and has lot of resource info.
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Revised 04/03/16, 05/05/04