ART IS PAIN: Dealing with repetitive motion injuries

As a full-time artist (and with plenty of friends who are also hard-working art professionals), I know we artists have a tendency to work like a machine in a 24/7 factory. As much as that helps our income and makes our customers happy, the important thing for us to remember is that we aren’t machines. And even machines break and need downtime for maintenance.

Plus, the more we do the same kind of work with our hands (and uncomfortable positions or with improper tools), the more likely it is for us to encounter repetitive motion injuries. These can be painful and keep you from doing what you love.

Hopefully after reading this, you’ll feel inspired to improve your work habits and workspace so that you limit your chances of a painful injury to your money-makers (I mean your hands, of course!)

NOTE: I’m not a doctor. Many of the info you find here can be found after a chat with the doctor and a google search. So this is my semi-informative, semi-anecdotal advice post about tendinitis from the desk of a very impatient, workaholic, creative professional!

 


About tendons, tendinitis, and Carpal Tunnel

In short, tendons attach muscle to bone and tendinitis is the inflammation of tendons that are overused. The goal of recovery is not to use those muscle groups when the attached tendons are inflamed.

What Tendinitis feels/looks like:

  • Tension, tingling, and pain in the forearm, wrist, and hand
  • Limited range of motion and weakness
  • Throbbing and swelling
  • Crunching or “twanging” sensation in the troubled area

For me as an artist (and even when I played more Playstation growing up), I was diagnosed with one of the common types of tendinitis called “De Quervain’s stenosing tenosynovitis”. But because I was too stubborn to actually rest, that developed into tendinitis of the wrist and a hint of tennis elbow.

Tendinitis can develop into Carpal tunnel. Carpal tunnel syndrome is numbness, tingling pain, and weakness in the thumb, index and middle fingers as a result of irritation of the median nerve being irritated at the wrist. Tendinitis is typically caused by overuse while Carpal Tunnel can be from pressure compressing the nerve, congenital issues, glandular disorders, etc.

Read more here:
https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/arthritis-tendinitis
https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tendinitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20378243
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/175596.php


How to recover:

Great. So, you went and broke yourself but you don’t have time for that! You have so many commissions to do! What do you do now?

First off: don’t worry about the future. If you’re feeling what I’ve mentioned above, it is likely a common and treatable injury. If you are patient with yourself, you can recover. You need to focus on getting help, communicating with your customers, and getting rest. Otherwise, this could go from bad to worse.

Visit and Obey your Doctor

Before I got to my doctor, I was at the point where my arms were in extreme pain for days. Thankfully my doctor is amazing. Not only did she single-handedly help me with my chronic sinus infections, she had a great wealth of information on tendinitis.

The run down was: rest, wrist braces, ice packs, and anti-inflammatory gel. She hooked me up with a prescription for a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) gel called “Diclofenac Sodium” which is commonly prescribed to people who suffer from arthritis (and even used in veterinary science on horses with injuries!) When administered in the prescribed amount topically to my wrist (on the skin of the wrist where the angry tendons reside), it helped alleviate pain and heal.

The trick to getting better with the prescribed tools is to actually use the prescribed tools (“Thanks captain obvious!”) Seriously though. I put off using the gel at the start of my recovery since it smelled kind of bad. Since it was the winter time, ice was not really what I want to snuggle up to. And I was just too lazy to use the wrist braces; they can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to them or bind them too tightly. I was foolish to think I could just rest and recover. By the time I was so frustrated and emotional from being forced to do nothing for a few weeks, I started to use the gel, wrist braces, and ice packs and it made a huge difference. It didn’t just calm the pain, it helped to reduce inflammation repair the tendons.

Rest (or ELSE!)

The worst thing for you right now is to do pretty much anything with the muscle groups associated with the problematic tendons. If you have tendinitis in your hands from sewing, cutting, drawing, etc. and you push yourself too much, it can lead to tennis elbow and eventually it could result in a tendon snapping = surgery = $$$$ + even more recovery time.

Lay your hands flat while you rest if hand-clenching (tool-holding) hurts you. The muscles and tendons on the underside of your hand and wrist that work to close your hands into a fist are in need of rest.

No, seriously. REST!

I mean it. And rest doesn’t mean just use another hand and keep working or do some other repetitive activity. You could end up hurting your other hand and end up TWICE as miserable (just like me!) When I was bored and only my right hand hurt, I played phone games with my left. Then BOTH hands were in pain.
Try not to skip out on rest or find workarounds. You need real rest for a month or more. Distract yourself with TV rather than phone games, video games, or hand crafts. Call or use voice messages to communicate (or utilize the talk-to-type function on your phone) instead of texting or typing.

With proper rest, meds, healthy diet, and improved ergonomics, it’s taken about a month or so to get to a point where was 98% better. I went from not being able to hold a toothbrush without severe pain to full function with rare numbness/pain. Full tendinitis recovery could take someone 3-6 months depending on the case so don’t try to rush into anything that could put you on an operating table!

Don’t forget to ask for help

If you live with other people that care about you, try not to be a stubborn overachiever like me. In the beginning of my tendinitis, picking up an empty plate hurt so badly but I put dishes away despite the pain. This was unwise when I had a husband more than willing and able to assist. It’s not something to be ashamed of. These injuries are common and resting properly is tough for anyone (especially when we rely on our artwork for creative outlet, entertainment, and income.)

Communicate with customers

Assuming you already have a good relationship with your commissioners from clear, consistent communication, they should understand that injuries happen and to give you time to recover. If they push you to keep working, they may break you for good… then NO ONE gets their commission. Ever.

If your customers are being unreasonable, patiently remind them that you’re a human being that needs to recover or else you will lose full function of your hands. Good things come to those who wait.

It can be difficult to keep every customer in the loop especially when typing isn’t the best idea as you recover. If possible, post to an alert channel so you aren’t forced to advertise or communicate with each customer – if you have one reliable place for information (a commission queue, Telegram channel, website, Twitter, or gallery page) post a statement there so that it is the first thing they read when they log in to check what’s up with their commission.

If you want to be really pro-active, take into consideration that recovery could take 3 to 6 months. If you are in a position to offer refunds, that can help alleviate stress for both parties involved. If that isn’t an option, regular updates will have to do to keep your customers from assuming the worst.

Gear up

You might feel like a broken nerd with the gear, the ice packs, and the stinky gel, but physical health is important. And, frankly, if this injury is preventing you from doing your job, recovery is critical. You’re fighting a battle against pain. Saving yourself from months of recovery and expensive surgery. Ice packs and NSAID gel are your weapons. Wrist braces are your armor. Use them proudly.

WRIST BRACES: You’ll want to bind your wrist, hand, and thumb especially when you are resting. They help restrain your thumb, restrict your hand from clenching too much, and apply pressure to the wrist to aid in blood circulation. Sometimes, I sleep with them on if I’ve had a tendinitis flare up that day. I can even work with them on if I don’t bind my thumb into place (if I bind the thumb, it almost works as a strengthening exercise and I definitely don’t need that when my tendons are already inflamed!) I sometimes wear a more elastic style of wrist support similar to this while I’m working or when I want the wrist pressure but need use of my hands.

ICE PACKS: Applying ice packs to the inflamed areas will help reduce inflammation better than heat. Heat may feel good at first but cold helps quiet the screaming, throbbing pain of enflamed tendons. I have two or more reusable ice packs so that I can use one and rotate out to re-freeze as they warm up from use. I just use some that we use for coolers since I didn’t want to bother with a medical ice pack; from my experience, they don’t usually stay cold very long.

Anti-inflammatory diet

This was admittedly “bonus point round” I made up for myself (not prescribed by a doctor) but I wanted to help improve my chances of recovering and do it a little faster, so I tried to cut out things that cause inflammation. If you want to do the same, that means cutting out refined carbohydrates (bread), fried foods, sugary-drinks like soda, red meat, and some other delicious goodies that you may ingest daily.

Optimal anti-inflammatory foods include: olive oil, fresh fruits, fatty fish, nuts, and green leafy vegetables. I actually started to feel a little better as a whole once I adjusted my diet to consist mostly of anti-inflammatory foods but your results may vary!

Read more about an anti-inflammatory diet here: 
https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation

Exercise

3 to 6 months is a long time to be moping around, watching TV, and trying not to hurt yourself more. Get your blood flowing with exercise that doesn’t involve your hands so that you can get some endorphins (to keep from getting depressed about your downtime) and so that your body can work on repairing the issue. Take a walk. Ride a bike. Dance your butt off. Just be sure to let those angry wrists rest!

 


Prevention Tactics:

Hopefully there isn’t a “next time” but if your full-time dream job brought this upon you and you expect to keep doing your art for profit for the foreseeable future, bank on this happening again. What you can do is try to limit the chances of it happening or reduce the intensity of the pain and recovery time through pacing yourself and using equipment, furniture, and tools that will help to ergonomically improve your workspace.

 

Stretch & Keep using the gear

Don’t throw those wrist braces and ice packs away! When you take a break or are sleeping, the wrist braces continue to improve circulation. Ice packs along with stretching can help reduce inflammation so a small irritation doesn’t become a full tendinitis flare-up.

 

Slow your roll

As we get older, our bodies are more susceptible to injury and take longer to heal. So if you don’t want tendinitis coming back like the Terminator to remind you how you are a mortal human being (not a machine), you’re going to want to limit your work hours/days. Restrict yourself to business hours and give yourself time on the weekends to recover from a long work week. It’s been a struggle but I’m doing my best to stick to it for my sanity and health in the long run!

 

Ergonomics

All of the ergonomic goodies I mention are listed at
my materials, tools, and suppliers blog post.

I apparently needed this tendinitis scare to show me the foolishness of my inclination to use whatever furniture was free or cheap or “I’ve had it for this long and it’s been fine.” I’ve improved the ergonomics of my work space considerably since my injury. I am here to tell you not to wait it out like I did. Stop using awful tools just because you’re trying to cut corners on costs! Spending some money on a pair of scissors that cut properly, a desk that’s the correct height to work at, and a proper desk lamp so you aren’t hunched over is a drop in the bucket compared to surgery costs and lost income from recovery time.

The straw that broke the camel’s back (or in this case, the pen that broke the artist’s wrists?) was an Apple Pencil. Round, smooth, easy to lose your grip unless you death-grip it like I did. Or just get ergonomic grips for the Apple pencil and your traditional art pencils so you can save your tendons!

The iPad art marathon with the Apple Pencil definitely put me in a bad place… however that wasn’t the lion’s share of my tendon aggravation. Overuse makes sense because I’m a commission machine. I work long hours and every day of the week. As summer 2017 turned into fall, I was feeling more pain and numbness from all the aggressive artwork I’ve done with few breaks if any. I am known primarily for my traditional artwork. If you would have looked at my desk set up in 2017 you wouldn’t have guessed that at all. I was working from a $40 used child’s drafting-table-style desk. As a professional artist, I owed it to myself and my customers to improve my situation.

The old desk I used for my computer area was more like a writing desk; not designed for a digital artist’s life. I often felt my wrists resting on the edge of the desk and my elbow crammed against the arm of the chair. So I got new desks (computer area and general flat workspace), a drafting table, a lumbar support chair with movable arm rests, foot rests for both desks (to help curb another issue: I would curl my legs under the seat of my chair, thus hurting my knees), and a new desk lamp for the drafting table. And one of the best new investments was a desktop easel to prop up my WACOM tablet! It helps artistically and ergonomically.

 

All of these ergonomic goodies are listed at
my materials, tools, and suppliers blog post.

 

 

 


If you found this post informative, feel free to share on social media!
Otherwise, if you have experience or suggestions to share, I would appreciate your comments below!

Much LORF!
Crazdude




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One Response to “ART IS PAIN: Dealing with repetitive motion injuries

  • Thank you! This was really helpful! I always have wrist problems drawing and find myself asking for advice. Glad I found this site here!

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