Gardening elbow

I’ve overdone it. Last week I injured my right arm just as the gardening season is starting. It was a silly little thing and I didn’t realise how serious it potentially was at first.

After a couple of weeks of heavy lifting, operating weighty machinery and other tasks in the excitement of spring preparation, my elbow gave up trying to lift a particularly heavy bit of soil while weeding with a hand fork. At first it didn’t seem too bad and I carried on, the mistake that quickly made it worse.

The pain is on the outside of the elbow, triggered when I twist my forearm or lift anything. It’s a clear sign of tennis elbow, which I am calling gardening elbow. It’s a common problem that affects many people and actually affects many more gardeners than it ever did tennis players. So I’m renaming it.

Gardening elbow happens when you over strain the tendon – the bits attaching the muscle to your bone – on your forearm and can happen from any repetitive activity, such as typing, sports and gardening. According to the NHS (who wrongly call it tennis elbow) this strain causes tiny tears and inflammation of the tendon. It can happen on the inside too, called golfer’s elbow.

While I am right handed, I have always been fairly ambidextrous in my mind, I can control both arms in the same way. My hand writing has always been appalling and it stayed with me when, aged 10 or 11, my teacher said I was probably left-handed but it was too late to switch (I’ve never been sure it was too late).

Despite that, my right arm is unmistakably the dominant one and if you’ve ever tried doing something like hoeing, using secateurs or a trowel with your other arm, it’s amazing how useless the muscles are. Even brushing my teeth left-handed is comical.

So here I am in the warm weeks of March as spring kicks in feeling my initial attempt to be positive fading away as each wasted day passes by. Gardening elbow is said to last from 6 – 12 months if the articles online are to be believed, I’m hoping it will heal much faster than that.

I plan to see a physio, use supports and rest. Rest seems to be the only real way of healing gardening elbow but as we enter the peak of spring with our large garden entering its second year with us looking after it, and all of my client gardens to be set out and planted, the weight of what this might mean I am currently trying to ignore. It’s even proving hard to type this article, you’ll be glad it will be shorter as a result.

To be positive, today I will go out again and practice hoeing and weeding with my left arm to train the muscles up, being careful not to over do it. If you’re reading this, hopefully it’s a useful reminder to prevent this happening to you by being more careful than I was. Take breaks, especially with heavy or strenuous tasks. If it hurts, stop immediately.

18 thoughts on “Gardening elbow

  1. Say it isn’t so. I’m having the same problem after lifting & moving two very heavy containers several weeks ago alongside planting a new garden bed. You will have a another right hander fumbling with tools in the left hand across the sea in South Carolina. I hope that we both recover quickly. Stephanie

  2. I’m left handed, but I can write (only just) legibly with the wrong hand.
    I swop hands when I use tools – except secateurs, which don’t swop.

    1. Thanks Diana, I’ve been trying to swap tools always too but it seems not enough. I’m managing a bit though 🙂

      1. Hi Jack, I am a self employed landscape gardener and have had gardeners elbow multiple times. I have found that by using a therraband flexbar (Red) I am able to recover pretty quickly. The technique described in the instructions works amazingly well.
        Hope this help you and other gardeners elbow sufferers as much as it did me.
        All the best.

        1. Thanks for the tip Andrew, I’ll look into that. Do you find it’s best to keep exercising and using the arm, just not anything too heavy?

  3. I suffered with the same when I painted all my external window frames. I came across some very useful videos on YouTube which demonstrated a massage technique which gave me relief and helped me recover.

  4. Oh no!

    I really feel for you. I did exactly the same this time last year. Set off hoiking a bit of overzealous Achilliea out of my front garden while drinking a cup of tea following a few strenuous weeks of pruning and mulching.

    It’s so debiliatiting and disheartening but like Lottie I was pointed to the NHS ‘tennis’ elbow site which had excellent self massage and exercise guidance. And don’t scrimp on the ibuprofen for the inflammation!

    2 things you have referred to but really must watch out for are overdoing it too fast when it feels better (I made that mistake few months in) And be extra careful with your other arm. I did the same with trying to retrain it but unsurprisingly it injures even easier! Last of all, while I may end up with ubsurd tan lines, I try really hard to remeber to wear forearm supports whenever I am doing anything strenuous which so far has staved of a 2022 relapse 🤞

    Good luck and get well soon

    1. Thank you for the tips Jen, I’ll check out the NHS website now, is it the Oxford leaflet? This one:

      I have forearm straps now. I’m finding it hard to know if I should still be using the arm, but not on strenuous things. It seems like a mix of building up muscle while not damaging the muscle further, which seems tricky.

      Very frustrating as so much to do, but a good lesson for the future I guess.

      You mentioned one thing, doing lots of work beforehand and then it happening. I did this, a couple of weeks of very heavy lifting work and then it was the weeding that broke the camel’s back. I’m wondering if this overdoing it without giving muscles the chance to recover is what caused it.


  5. I had this six months ago when I joined a new gym heavy on weights and calisthenics (the joy of a new exercise regime in your early forties – it’s injury after injury till your body adjusts!). It was so painful it would wake me up in the night if I turned over. Hope it heals quickly. Took about three months for me and I can do the exercises without issue now.

    Oh and just saw you’re going to be lecturing on the YSGD Diploma. I’ve just signed up and I’m counting the days to resigning from corporate life. Looking forward to meeting you! I’ve been a big fan since I read your Wild About Weeds book when it came out, which is right at home with my style of gardening. Can’t wait!

    1. Look forward to meeting you too Olivia, though you may be teaching me elbow exercises! 🙂 Did you keep using the arm but not on anything too strenuous? And yes, I recently turned forty and I suspect this is also a big part of it…

      1. Yeah exactly that. Kept using it but tentatively and if it felt too much, stopped. I suspect this will be a new normal until decrepitude finally sets in… Fun!

  6. I see you are treating your “gardening elbow” with philosophy, as ever.
    Best wishes for a prompt recovery, Jack!
    Bon courage !

  7. If it doesn’t seem to be getting better, think about asking for ultrasound treatment. It isn’t a standard treatment but it has helped me on 2 separate occasions. The 2nd time the physio was very doubtful but it did work. Best wishes Jan

  8. Hi there, I am a professional gardener too and 3 months ago developed both tennis and golfers elbow, having never played either!
    Voltarol and a support are helping but due to bills, I am having to keep working so trying not to strain my elbow any further. Seeing sports therapist too although I didn’t like the acupuncture he tried, it was like having an electric shock!
    Here’s to my first week off at half term since August last year. I hear yoga and pilates is what many other gardeners do to keep them in tip top condition….maybe I could squeeze some in inbetween working and studying for my level 3 exams in June……lol
    Hope your elbow is better soon!

    1. Thanks Rachel I hope yours does too! I was given some simple stretches which do seem to slowly be working. Alongside avoiding really heavy work. I have a support too.

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