“Arthritis is a common problem among farmers, partly because the people who farm are older, but also because agricultural production is one of the most physically and psychologically stressful occupations,” says Amber Wolfe, the Arthritis Foundation Coordinator with the National AgrAbility Project, which is administered through Purdue University. 

“Farmers jump on and off farm implements and jar their joints and other body parts.  They push themselves hard and cut corners, like lifting things that could be lifted mechanically, because they think some tasks will take longer if they use tools designed for the operations.”

“Farmers learn to live with pain and too often don’t seek proper diagnosis and treatment,” asserts Wolfe, an Indiana farmer herself.  “Estimates are that roughly one-third of all farmers and ranchers have some form of arthritis, but the true incidence is probably higher.”

The term arthritis means inflammation in one or more joints.  Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis.  It accounts for 16 percent of disabled farmers who become AgrAbility clients, according to Wolfe.

“Osteoarthritis is caused by degeneration of cartilage, the joint lining, ligaments and underlying bone,” says rheumatologist Dr. Shelby Dames. 

“Unfortunately, no medications can repair joints, although medications can reduce the pain.  In some circumstances replacement with artificial joints may need to be considered,” says Dames, “but behavior and lifestyle changes can significantly help with osteoarthritic symptoms.” 

Osteoarthritis manifests itself across generations of family farmers, making many farmers believe it is an inherited condition.  While there is evidence of its heritability, Wolfe points out that farm people tend to perform tasks the same way from one generation to the next. 

“Children learn from their parents how to carry out certain tasks, like lifting heavy objects while bending their backs instead of bending their legs,” observes Wolfe.  “We should use our strongest joints whenever possible.”

“Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and juvenile idiopathic arthritis are autoimmune disorders,” says Dames. 

“These are less common conditions where the body’s own immune system attacks the joints and connective tissues.  Early diagnosis and medications can delay or prevent joint damage.”

Behaviors changes can reduce the risk for developing arthritis, Dames and Wolfe agree:

  • Avoid jarring impacts of any kind, by stepping off tractors, trucks and hayracks instead of jumping off. 
  • Use mechanical means to carry out farming tasks as much as possible, like hydraulic lifts and other tools instead of our bodies.
  • Sometimes farmers have to change their daily activities entirely, by turning over repetitive tasks that stress certain body parts to other persons or mechanical means.  For example, dairy operators may have to allow other persons or robots to milk their cows to avoid worsening knee problems.
  • Stay active.  The more physically active one stays through engaging in appropriate exercise, the better.  The body responds to demands made on it through exercise by toughening up muscles and other connective tissues around joints, making the active person more resilient when having to perform tasks.  Swimming, walking and use of exercise machines are examples of beneficial activities.
  • Lose the added pounds of excess fat because unnecessary weight is hard on joints.
  • Avoid nicotine products; nicotine increases the risk for developing autoimmune forms of arthritis.  
  • Eating a healthy diet of proteins, vegetables, whole grains, and fruit and watching intake of fatty foods, sugars and salt can help keep off pounds, thereby reducing stress on joints, but diet has little to do with developing osteoarthritis.
  • It is a myth that acidic foods and caffeine cause osteoarthritis.  Some people feel dietary supplements such as fish oil, chondroitin and glucosamine help prevent osteoarthritis but scientific evidence of their benefits is unclear.
  • Farmers and ranchers who think putting up with pain is part of farming successfully should know that proper diagnosis and treatment could improve their lives.  Primary care physicians usually manage osteoarthritis, whereas rheumatologists specialize in treating the autoimmune musculoskeletal disorders.
  • Reduce stress is an oxymoron, but it applies to managing arthritis because the mindset of overly stressed persons often encourages them to engage in behaviors that worsen the condition.

The Arthritis Foundation (www.arthritis.org) has been a partner in the National AgrAbility Project since 2008.  National project funding is reviewed every four years, as well as the twenty current state AgrAbility programs, which receive monies on a competitive award basis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

AgrAbility can provide education and assistive technology for persons involved in farming and related occupations who are impaired by arthritis, as well as many other causes of disability.  Interested persons can contact their state programs directly, if their state has an AgrAbility program, and by emailing the National AgrAbility Program through its website: www.agrability.org or calling: 1-800 825-4264.

A few lucky people seem not to develop arthritis, but my advice is to farm smart to reduce its development.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.