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Farmers adapt on the job to help battle arthritis

May 26, 2007

Dorothy Schneider
Lafayette Journal & Courier

Lifestyle changes, new equipment and modifying their tasks can help ease pain

Mike Williams has spent his life working on the family farm in Daviess County, but the job has worn on his body.

"I was always big and strong and could carry four buckets of water at a time," the 61-year-old said. But years of hard work have taken a toll on Williams' joints. He is now part of the large group of farmers -- approximately one-third of the nation's total -- who suffer from arthritis. Across the country, 46 million people have arthritis, including 1.4 million in Indiana.

Williams has gotten help recently from Purdue University's Breaking New Ground Resource Center on ways to cope with the condition.

Because of overuse of muscles and joints on the job, farmers are prone to developing arthritis and should modify their work habits to stay healthy, said Bill Field, a Purdue Extension safety specialist. "Farmers tend to do things that abuse the knees. They jump on or off the machinery, stoop or kneel down . . . like a dairy farmer who's twice a day doing the same task hundreds of times," he said.

Since there's no cure for arthritis -- and the average age of farmers is pushing 55 -- Field said his group is focused on raising awareness of ways to avoid joint deterioration.

Purdue's Extension and Breaking New Ground recently teamed up with the Arthritis Foundation, Indiana Chapter, to produce the educational DVD "Gaining Ground on Arthritis: Managing Arthritis in the Agricultural Workplace."

The DVD teaches farmers about new equipment and techniques they can use to decrease body strain. Field advises some farmers to lose weight, to reduce stress on joints. Some he tells to use ergonomic hand tools, with larger handles so they don't have to compress their hands so much.

To others, Field suggests they use machines with bench seats and better shocks -- to support the back -- and lower steps to ease the strain from getting into or out of the large equipment.
"Steps on the tractors makes it a lot easier to get on because we have mostly older equipment," Williams said. "The Mule (4x4 utility vehicle) has been a tremendous help. It enables me to go to the barn and pick up parts and come back out here and work on different things. These devices make my job easier to where I can still get out there and still work."

Williams said he's encouraging farmers, such as his son Kyle, to adopt practices explained in the DVD as preventive measures while they are still young and healthy.
"You manage arthritis by changing your lifestyle," Field said. "People can reduce stress on joints by losing weight. Without that, we're going to see a lot more arthritis."

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