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0809 PD: Dairying with arthritis

Randolph R. Weigel Published on 18 May 2009

Arthritis is one of the most common disabling conditions, and it especially affects farmers, ranchers and farm workers due to the physical nature of their work, which may include climbing steps, driving a tractor, baling hay, moving livestock, or bending down frequently when milking dairy cows.

Arthritis – What is it?
Arthritis means “inflammation of a joint,” resulting in swelling, redness, pain, and loss of motion. The term is used to describe more than 100 different conditions known as rheumatic diseases. These conditions affect the joints and surrounding tissues like muscles and tendons, although they can also affect the skin, internal organs and other parts of the body.



Arthritis is one of America’s most common chronic disease conditions, affecting one in three individuals. Without proper medical treatment and care, some types of arthritis can cause significant disability and deformity.

Farmers are at increased risk for arthritis-related conditions. The impact of arthritis can be quite profound because the condition reduces physical strength and ability to move around and complete routine chores. But, by getting medical care the farmer will most likely be able to continue production agriculture. In contrast, by waiting until joints become extremely painful or deformed, it may be too late for doctors or lifestyle changes to help significantly.

Common types of arthritis
Osteoarthritis 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 boney overgrowth called spurs. For farmers and farm workers, frequent lifting of heavy objects, repeated use of vibrating machinery or constant bending to perform certain tasks can add to the stress on joints and lead to osteoarthritis, particularly of weight-bearing joints.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease, meaning it involves the entire body. It is an inflammatory condition that primarily affects the synovium, the thin membrane that lines and lubricates a joint. Rheumatoid arthritis causes the membrane to thicken, which can damage the cartilage and bone within the affected joint and the supporting soft tissue structures such as ligaments and tendons. The condition affects one or more joints and/or other internal organs. In some farmers, rheumatoid arthritis causes fatigue, fever and general aches and pains.

Bursitis and tendonitis are painful conditions that usually last a short time and do not cause permanent damage. Bursitis is inflammation of the bursa, which is a small sac that acts like a cushion where a muscle crosses another muscle or bone. Tendonitis is inflammation of a tendon, which is the fibrous cord that attaches a muscle to a bone.


A farmer may develop bursitis or tendonitis when certain muscles or 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.

Managing arthritis
Several steps can help alleviate symptoms and allow performance of day-to-day tasks on the farm.

• Avoid long durations of gripping or grasping objects tightly; build up handles or levers with padding to reduce amount of grip needed.

• Avoid jarring motions or shocks when operating or servicing equipment. Never jump from equipment and take breaks to stretch and walk.

• Maintain proper posture.

• Move around; don’t stay in the same position for extended periods of time.


• Use power equipment to move and hoist heavy objects when possible.

• Use caution when entering and exiting equipment. Climb one step at a time, leading with the stronger leg. When climbing out, lead with your weaker or more painful leg. Consider installing additional grab bars or step extensions.

• Wear good-quality shoes with proper fit to support feet and ankles to relieve pressure, absorb shock and reduce pain.

• Use assistive aids such as simple splints to support weak fingers and prevent deformities, handle extensions, canes, etc.

• Use hot and/or cold treatments to help reduce pain.

• Practice simple, daily exercises such as range-of-motion, strengthening and fitness or endurance exercises to reduce chances of painful movement or potential deformities. Walking, bicycling and swimming are examples of exercises which may help alleviate symptoms.

• Pace work tasks and match them with times you are most able to complete them.


Many farmers, ranchers and farm workers with arthritis are continuing to function in production agriculture. And you likely can too if you (1) accept that arthritis is part of your life, (2) seek medical care or a proper diagnosis from your doctor or referred rheumatologist, and (3) fully commit to taking care of yourself. That means respecting your limits of energy, taking medication properly, getting enough rest, pacing yourself, reducing stress, protecting your joints and doing prescribed exercises. If you make – and stick to – that commitment, it is likely you can maintain an active, productive life in agriculture. PD

Randolph R. Weigel is a professor in the College of Agriculture at the University of Wyoming and project director for the Wyoming AgrAbility Project.
Randolph Weigel Human Development Specialist AgraAbility .

Get more help to minimize arthritis
Additional information on arthritis and how to minimize its deleterious effects can be obtained from: Arthritis Foundation Mayo Clinic Health
Missouri Arthritis Rehabilitation Research and Training Center
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
National AgrAbility Project