Thursday, March 11, 2010

Making Art Without Making Ourselves Sick - Part II

A repetitive strain injury (RSI) is an injury of the musculoskeletal and nervous system that may be caused by repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression (pressing against hard surfaces) or sustained or awkward positions.

Repetitive strain injuries are common problems for artists and crafters - add in the number of hours we are on our computers every day and there is the potential for serious trouble.

Maybe it's a nagging ache in your thumb every time you trim with your scissors or perhaps there have been long hours at your potter's wheel and now you notice stabbing pains in your forearms. It may be that you are even waking up at night with pain in your arms, or your back, or your neck. Well, it's just a part of being a serious artist, right? Wrong.

I am not an expert on this issue, but I have been dealing with it for a few years. One month, I did an incredibly stupid combination of things including cutting over 2000 mats by hand with a razor knife, trimming 2000 freeform machine embroidery collages with tiny little scissors and removing some very stubborn bathroom wallpaper- sometimes with a metal scraper and sometimes my thumbnail - ugh! I won't put everyone to sleep with my myriad problems over the years, but I do know the most important thing for RSI is prevention.

EVALUATE YOUR TECHNIQUE- In general artists and crafters often need to reduce force, find postures that keep joints in the middle of their range of motion, use larger muscle groups when possible, and reduce body usage that involves fixed, tensed positions.

ALWAYS WARM UP - Athletes do not abruptly start vigorous physical activity without warming up because they know it is an invitation to injury. Artists and crafters often put athletic demands on fine motor musculature and should similarly be religious about warming up before working.

TAKE LOTS OF BREAKS - If you are going to treat your body like a machine it is going to break just like a machine. This means both momentary breaks every few minutes and longer breaks every hour or so. This may be the single most important thing to remember. Constant tension and repetitive motion does not allow the body to flush away metabolic waste products and this is traumatic to tissues over time.

GOOD POSTURE IS VITAL - Check out your technique and posture in a mirror.

EVALUATE OTHER ACTIVITIES - Your problems may be caused or aggravated by other things you do frequently. Computer use is a notorious example, but sports, carrying children, hobbies, and excess effort/tension in other daily things may have enormous impact too.

CHECK OUT YOUR TOOLS - Are you using the right tool for the job? Are you using an instrument that is too large or awkward for you? Is your work space set up optimally for you? Tiny changes can make a HUGE difference.

BE CAREFUL WITH STRENGTHENING METHODS - Building up muscle strength with special devices (those grip thingies, putty) is very controversial (I did some additional damage to myself with this). If you are already injured and in pain, such things may make it worse. On the other hand, if you are not yet injured, properly conditioning muscles may help prevent injury or re-injury. Be patient in building strength, and talk to a qualified doctor or physical therapist.

PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BODY. Pain is your body telling you that it's in big trouble, but learning what is comfortable or awkward for your body before you're in pain may prevent injury.

GET MEDICAL HELP if you need it. No pain, no gain does not apply.


  1. This is great advice, Cat! Thanks so much for posting it!

  2. This is really great advice!

    I suffered RSI from my day job (camera assistant/loader) for a few years. I had tendonitis in my right thumb and palm for several years--it got pretty bad, to where I could not grip/hold anything with my right hand. I also suffered from "trigger finger" or "trigger thumb"--ouch! Wearing a splint while working is what saved me, and luckily I didn't need cortisone shots. As I have moved up in the camera department, my job duties require less of what caused my RSI, so my condition actually disappeared for a couple of years.

    Now that I have been doing a lot of graphic design work over the last 6 months (including taking classes) and generally spending a TON of time at the computer, I noticed my RSI is creeping back. It's from the way I use the mouse, believe it or not! So I have to be very careful now not to aggravate the condition, bc I certainly don't want a "relapse." I've occasionally had to resort to wearing my splint at the computer!

  3. This is so helpful! Spending 4 hours at a time doing pen and ink crosshatching always leaves me with a cramped hand and an aching shoulder. I'm hoping these tips will eliminate it.

  4. Awesome advice and suggestions!
    I often ignore my body while I work and the result is disastrous. Thank you especially for the reminder to be conscious of my posture. That's the one that really gets me. I tend to think I need my face right inside my project! My chiropractor told me to put a note on my computer that says "Take a break every 15 minutes".

  5. Oh boy, I'm there as well. I've had various RSS related intense pain over the past 4-5 years. Between working on the computer as a freelance designer and working on my paintings with teeny tiny brushes, I have experienced pain and numbness all the way from my neck down to my finger tips.

    I do everything I can to deal with this, but I suspect I'll be battling the pain as long as I continue doing the work I love. I have been to a couple specialists, but to be honest I have seen much more improvement in my condition with acupuncture, chiropractics and massage therapy (not inexpensive, but I can't do my work without it at this point). I also do yoga as well as special exercises and stretches for my shoulder and wrist.

    You should see my arsenal of braces, slings, splints and ergonomically designed furniture! Most recently I started using a special arm support called an "ergo rest" that my forearm or elbow can rest on when I paint. It seems to help some, but there is no magic bullet as far as I can tell. I guess it's one of those things that requires constant vigilance and attacking from all angles.