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Sherri Ohly, Wisconsin Arthritis Program coordinator, shared ideas on finding relief and managing arthritis during a recent summit co-sponsored by the National Farm Medicine Center and AgrAbility of Wisconsin.<br />

Sherri Ohly, Wisconsin Arthritis Program coordinator, shared ideas on finding relief and managing arthritis during a recent summit co-sponsored by the National Farm Medicine Center and AgrAbility of Wisconsin.
Photo By Gloria Hafemeister

Arthritis the number one cause of disability on the farm

May 3, 2012 | 0 comments

This is third in a series on safety reported from the National Farm medicine - AgrAbility Summit.

Agriculture has been identified as an industry at risk for the development of osteoarthritis. People working in agriculture have less access to healthcare and are often not appropriately treated for symptoms of arthritis.

Sherri Ohly, Wisconsin Arthritis Program coordinator, says it is important to recognize issues related to arthritis early on and deal with the problem before it becomes disabling.

Ohly shared ideas on finding relieve and managing arthritis during a recent summit co-sponsored by the National Farm Medicine Center and AgrAbility of Wisconsin.

She points out, "Arthritis is one of the most common chronic conditions in the U.S. and the world. In Wisconsin there are about 1.1 million adults who report having arthritis."

On the farm, arthritis is the number one cause of disability due to pain and impaired ability to do day to day tasks and activities. Problems from arthritis are greater than heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Ohly says problems from arthritis are actually expected to increase with the current obesity epidemic. One of two people is expected to develop symptomatic knee osteoarthritis but that risk increases to 2 out of three of those who are obese.

There are a staggering number of joint replacements every year due to osteoarthritis. In the U.S., 632,000 joint replacements are done every year and 25 percent of those who have knee osteoarthritis have problems doing their day-to-day activities.

A study of Iowa farmers with physician-diagnosed arthritis/rheumatism reported to have high risk for animal-related injury and fall-related farm injuries. Another study in New York indicated an increased risk of severe farm injury among farmers with self-reported joint trouble.

Resources, tips available

Ohly comments, "Although arthritis is a leading cause of disability, there is hope. There are effective treatments and programs that are readily available. The Wisconsin Arthritis Program has a wide range of resources and tips to help provide relief and management for all types of arthritis."

She admits that access to health care and lack of health insurance can be an issue but she stresses the importance of seeking assistance because it is not just one of those things a person must learn to live with.

"Whatever you do, do something," she urges farmers. "Eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise, drink more water…all these things help."

Ohly admits farmers believe they are already getting enough exercise but she says the exercise they are getting is probably not the kind that benefits the joints. As farms get bigger, jobs change and many jobs do not require the physical activity once required on farms and others are repetitive motion and not beneficial exercise.

"Many agricultural tasks have become more sedentary or highly repetitive and involve only a relatively small number of joints," she says.

Depending on the type of arthritis, over time joints may stiffen, become painful to move, or eventually become deformed. One way to lesson the chances of these problems is with exercise that involves all the key body joints.

Range-of-motion exercises to extend joints through their limits of movement help. Strengthening exercises to help retain or increase muscle tone keep joints stable and more comfortable.

Fitness or endurance exercises to make heart and lungs stronger give more stamina and help with sleeping, weight control and improving spirits. Walking, bicycling and swimming are examples of these low-impact exercises.

"We know exercise and a proper diet will help but now we need to put these things into action," she states, "Start in baby steps if you need to but start."

Forms of arthritis

There are many forms of arthritis including osteoarthritis that causes the breakdown of the smooth, gliding surface of a joint known as cartilage. When cartilage is destroyed, raw bone surfaces rub together and the bone ends may thicken and form bony overgrowths called "spurs". Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, meaning it involves the entire body. It is an inflammatory condition that primarily affects the thin membrane that lines and lubricates the joint.

Bursitis and tendonitis are painful conditions that usually last only a short time and do not cause permanent damage. A farmer or rancher may develop bursitis or tendonitis when certain muscles ore tendons are stressed, such as by too much lifting, carrying, or throwing or by constantly gripping and manipulating the controls on farm equipment.

Some dairy farmers have developed "milker's knee," a form of bursitis that results from repeated kneeling to attach milking equipment onto their cow's udders. Sudden shock to the joint, such as repeated jumping off equipment, can also lead to joint damage and inflammation.

Proper diagnosis

Arthritis can be managed to slow the progress but it is important to seek advice first from a team of health care professionals.

Ohly says the first step is to get a proper diagnosis from a doctor to be sure a proper treatment plan can be established. Untreated, arthritis can lead to very serious problems that can eventually prevent any type of work.

People with arthritis often use heat or cold treatments to help relieve pain. A warm bath or shower can reduce morning stiffness and help make exercising easier. A heating pad can provide short-term pain relief but be sure to turn it off before going to sleep, she cautions.

An ice pack applied to painful areas often helps reduce pain. Sometimes using a form of heat followed by a form of cold can lesson discomfort.

"Sleep, rest and pacing yourself are also important," she says. "A good night's sleep restores energy and strength and gives joints a chance to rest. Adequate sleep has also been shown to reduce the risk of farm-related injuries."

She says that also includes daytime resting that is extremely important because it helps restore strength.

Farmers are often under stress due to weather uncertainties, market prices, and time pressures. These pressures add up and un-managed, stress can increase pain and make it harder to live with arthritis.

She suggests that simplifying life and simplifying tasks by enlisting the help of others or cutting back on the size of the farming operation may be the best way to keep arthritic conditions from getting worse.

Ohly was speaking at a conference sponsored by AgrAbility of Wisconsin. AgrAbility has been working for the last 20 years with farmers facing health issues, injuries and arthritis.

Through AgrAbility farmers have been able to have their equipment modified to accommodate their arthritis-related limitations.

Caseworkers from AgrAbility will travel to the farm to evaluate the equipment and the farm set-up to offer advice for modifications that might make tasks easier and enable a person suffering from arthritis to continue in the business they love.

To learn more about sources of help for farming with arthritis contact the local Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, local rehabilitation services, University of Wisconsin Extension or AgrAbility of Wisconsin.

Reach AgrAbility of Wisconsin at 608-262-9336. Find out more about farming with arthritis at www.arthritis-ag.org.

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