Gardening With Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Yard work and gardening involve bending, lifting, digging, kneeling, exposure to the elements, allergens, and more. Even the heartiest of us with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or other chronic illnesses are likely to drop of exhaustion before long.

But does that mean you have to let your garden go to seed? Maybe not, if you can make the right adjustments. You might not be able to do as much as you could before you got sick, but you may be able to enjoy this hobby and keep things looking nice.

Woman planting garden

AleksandarNakic / iStock

The Right Tools

The right tools can make the difference between creating beauty and throwing in the trowel, so to speak. Some essentials for any gardener with these conditions are:

  • Good, sturdy hand tools. Flimsy ones aren't strong enough to make up for any lack of strength you have. Tougher ones will do a lot more of the heavy lifting for you.
  • A thick kneeling pad. Whether you're kneeling or sitting, having a good pad will keep you a lot more comfortable and might just help you stay where you need to be a little bit longer.
  • A garden caddy that you can pull around the yard. Look for something that holds all of your tools along with space left for plants. A lot of them also have cup holders, meaning you won't leave your drink halfway across the yard. A good caddy will save you a lot of trips so you can save your energy for the real work.
  • Thick gloves. First, they'll protect your hands from scrapes and scratches, which may be slow to heal and can introduce infection that can stress your over-taxed immune system. Second, they can keep your skin from coming into contact with allergens or chemicals that may exacerbate your symptoms.
  • A sun visor. Many of us have light sensitivity and can benefit from a visor whether or not we're wearing sunglasses. If you've never worn one, you may be surprised by how much they help. Also, for those of us who tend to sweat excessively, the visor can keep the sweat from running into your eyes. Why not a baseball cap, you ask? Because a visor is considerably cooler on a hot day, meaning it'll be better for managing temperature sensitivity.

Managing Your Symptoms

Self-monitoring is a big key when it comes to yard work and gardening, or any strenuous job. Listen to your body. Be realistic about whether or not you can handle gardening on a given day, and if so, how much you can do without exacerbating your symptoms.

Think about what medication you'd take for post-gardening aches and pains and consider whether taking them preemptively might be better than waiting until you're really hurting. Be sure you're not taking something that could hamper your dexterity, though. You don't want to be clumsy while handling sharp tools.

If you have temperature sensitivities, you'll want to plan your gardening for times when it's not too hot or too cold for you to work comfortably. During hotter months, mornings and evenings may be best. Try to take advantage of the sun's movement by working areas that are shaded. The opposite strategy can help keep you warm during cooler times.

It sounds obvious to say "stay hydrated," but it's worth saying no matter how often you've heard it before. The consequences of dehydration and heatstroke can be serious, and if your body has trouble cooling itself down, you may be at higher risk.

Remember to keep emergency medical supplies you may need—such as an asthma inhaler or EpiPen—close at hand. It's also a good idea to keep your cell phone with you in case you need help.

And, of course, sunscreen. Sunburn on top of our unique pain types of hyperalgesia and allodynia? No thanks!

Pacing, Pacing, Pacing

Learning to pace yourself properly can help you get a lot more done with fewer consequences, in the garden and in just about every area of life.

Many of us do best when working in short bursts with rest in between. Try ten minutes of work followed by ten minutes of rest and see how you feel, then adjust until you find the right balance for you.

You may need to experiment to find the pacing schedule that works best for you. It may seem like the frequent breaks will make the job take longer, but you may find that it actually enables you to be more productive as well as preventing major symptom flares.

Those with chronic fatigue syndrome need to be especially cautious when it comes to physical labor because of a symptom called post-exertional malaise.

Pacing can be tough to learn. We have a tendency to work until we crash, in an effort to get things done while we can.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of ME/CFS. Updated November 19, 2019.

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