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Farming takes a toll on the body

Nurturing

PHYSICAL WORK Bad backs, dodgy knees

Health
Andrew O'Brien

It was suggested recently that I write about farming injuries. It would seem a sensible suggestion. We are, after all, in a rural area with plenty of full- and part-time farmers around. Is there something unique to farming that needs to be discussed?
The Central Statistics Office and the Health and Safety Authority, in their reports on these things, lump agricultural work in with fishing and forestry, so in an area that is hard to get truly accurate numbers anyway, it is difficult to get numbers related just to farming. However, the HSA report for 2016 shows that the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector had the highest rate of injury causing four or more days’ absence from work, and the highest rate of less-serious accidents.
Sadly, this same sector accounted for half of all fatal work-place accidents in 2017, the vast majority being farming-related. While these numbers are significantly higher than all other employment sectors, there is a continuing downward trend – but the numbers are still enough to make one swear, and it is something that needs constant monitoring.
From a physiotherapist’s perspective, we are most likely to see a farmer for a sore back. More often than not, that back pain comes on after being half-bent for half a day, fixing a fence or tending to animals. In Australia, where I’m from, shearers will often shear over 200 big merino sheep or 400 smaller sheep in a day. That’s a lot of catching, dragging and wrestling while bent in the middle, day in and day out. Is it any wonder that backs get sore after a time?
Despite the commonly held belief that back pain is due to weakness, these folks seem to have backs made of stone and any manual treatment usually results in sore hands for the physio. There often appears to be a couple of extra layers of muscle on either side of the spine and the back looks visibly overworked rather than weak. For these people a back loosening or relaxation programme is more important than adding extra strain.
Knees and hips are other common problem areas, particularly among older farmers. Chances are they suffered an acute injury at some stage, either at work or playing sport, and only had the time to get the knee to the ‘it’s grand’ stage of rehab, rather than back to 100 percent. Over time, and with repeated twisting, turning, walking on heavy or uneven ground and climbing in and out of tractors, there is the potential for those slight weaknesses to worsen.
It’s not unusual for the bloke with the slightly dodgy knee to have a stiff back as well, where the back ends up doing extra work to compensate for the knee.
There are, of course, plenty of other injuries that happen to farmers. Lots of them mundane, some of them due to freak accidents and the odd one as a result of pure daftness. I’ve seen dislocated shoulders from falling off the back of trucks when hand feeding stock and countless broken limbs resulting from kicks from cattle and horses.
I once watched as my dad, who often rates a mention in these pages, had an enormous blood clot squeezed out of his lower leg. When the doctor asked how he had managed to get a bruise that big, dad had to sheepishly admit that he’d fallen off a farm motorbike while chasing kangaroos.
In a line of work that is statistically very dangerous, farmers often end up with very mundane injuries. That’s not to say the injuries are innocuous or inconsequential. Quite the reverse, if we don’t keep our farmers fit, we’d have no beef for our pies, milk for our tea or barley for our beer. Nobody wants that, least of all me!

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.