6 Tips for Avoiding Art Injuries
Yes, I’m Serious!
Who knew that avoiding art injuries was a thing? Is it really that hazardous being an artist? Most people wouldn’t think so…even artists. But the fact is, as enjoyable, calming, and peaceful the act of creating art can be, it involves repetitive motion, which can over time be damaging to all the small muscles, nerves, tendons, and other soft tissues in the hand, wrist, and forearm. Very similar to carpal tunnel, a condition known as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), which includes tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow, can begin to cause problems for artists, especially those who primarily use pencils for their work.
Art injuries like RSI build up over time by the continuous use, flexing, and stressing various body parts. For artists of course, this involves body parts we need the most for our work…from the elbow to the hand, and sometimes from the shoulder down. That’s not to say that every artist will suffer this condition, but for those that do, it can be debilitating and devastating when you’re deprived from doing the one thing you love doing…creating art!
Like most conditions that humans suffer, RSI can be prevented with good habits and a proper ergonomic work setup. Studies have shown that most workplace injuries are caused by years of repetitive motion and improper posture or positioning. The same is true for artists. So, what can we do to avoid our own art injuries?
1. Take Breaks
Work in blocks of time. I usually shoot for 30–45 minutes. When it’s time for a break, get up and grab a snack, make a cup of coffee, step outside for a few minutes, play with your pets, etc. The point is to give your hands and arms a break (a side benefit is that this tip also gives your eyes a break!). Take breaks in a way that works for you. Setting a timer might be up your alley. Maybe you’re a podcast or e-book kind of person. Listen to a chapter or two and then take your break. You might listen to a playlist or CD that runs about 45 minutes. When it ends, that could be your cue to take a break.
The fact is, we artists get into the groove and forget about pain and discomfort, which exacerbates the injury. Whatever method you choose, stick to it.
Before you start working and when you’re done for the day, you can stretch out your wrist extensors and flexors by performing simple stretches. You can also do this while you’re taking a break. Hold your arm out in front of you, palm down. With the other hand, bend your hand down for the extensor. Do not stretch to the point of pain. When you feel the stretch, that’s enough. Hold it there for a few seconds and then relax. Then turn your arm over, palm up and bend your hand back so that your fingers point towards the ground for the flexor stretch. Again, no pain. Just feel the stretch. Go ahead and do both sides. Even though it’s not stressed, your non-dominant hand and arm will thank you. Shake your hands out and then repeat the process a time or two more.
3. Ergonomic Workspace
This is essential. Unfortunately, most artists do not have access to a risk management team to come in and evaluate our workspace. But there are a few basic rules that you can check yourself and tweak as you go.
- Adjust the height of your chair. Your feet should be flat on the ground and your hips slightly higher than your knees to maintain the natural curve of the spine and prevent back strain (an injury that’s a whole other world of hurt!). If necessary, get a footrest. An inexpensive lumbar support can also help here, too.
- Adjust the height of your drawing table. Most artist’s tables or desks are adjustable. Make sure that it’s adjusted so that you are not hunched over it or having to stretch up to reach it. Your shoulders should not be raised or flexed, but in a relaxed position. And the tabletop should be at a height where your forearm naturally and comfortably rests on it without hunching your shoulders.
- Make sure your drawing arm is fully supported. If part of your arm is hanging off the edge of the table, that edge pressing into your arm can cause pinching and eventual nerve damage. Sit closer to the table to avoid this hazard. Sitting closer to the table will also help you maintain good back posture.
4. Modify Your Art Supplies
Artists who primarily use pencils can run a greater risk of art injuries because of the size of the tool. Pencils are very slender and require more of a pinching motion to hold onto them. Making your tools fatter can alleviate a lot of the hand and wrist strain. Office supply stores carry inexpensive rubber grips for pens and pencils. Some brands of pencils are bigger around than others. Or you can get creative and wrap your pencils with something you might have on hand at home.
For color pencil artists, finding the right combination of pencil and paper that doesn’t cause too much strain is key. Paper with more tooth means you have to exert more pressure, more burnishing, etc. Find a combination that works for you.
5. Modify Your Habits and Your Workspace
Do you use an electric sharpener? Relocate it so that it’s behind you rather than right in front of you. This will force you to move every time you have to sharpen your pencils, which alleviates the strain of sitting in one position for too long. It will also refresh your posture when you get back to work. We all know how we eventually end up back in a slouched position! Relocate items you need frequently so that you have to move to get to them. It may sound hugely inconvenient, but if it can prevent injury, it’s so worth it!
6. Vary Your Pencil Grip
Hopefully you don’t have a death grip on your pencil while you work. Your grip should be more relaxed. But even so, try modifying how you hold your pencil. Each variation uses different muscles to different degrees. In each case however, your grip should be relaxed and not like your trying to choke the life out of your pencils. Aside from the usual way and the overhand method pictured above, come up with something that’s comfortable for you. There’s more than one way to hold a pencil!
What if you already have an injury?
Don’t worry…your art career is not over. Many of the tips mentioned above can help alleviate the pain. Modifying how you do things in order to make it work for you might take some creativity. Where there’s a will, there’s a way and we are creative by nature so don’t give up!
Braces and splints may help, but only if worn at the right time. Many people try to wear them during activity. Because wearing one of these makes it awkward to even hold a pencil, this may cause further injury to the injured or adjacent tissue. Use the brace or splint when at rest rather than during the activity. And only wear a brace or splint if you’ve been properly diagnosed with RSI or carpal tunnel and follow the doctor’s instructions on how to use it to the letter to prevent further injury. You might also consult your doctor if you know that you flex your wrists while you sleep. In this case, he may advise wearing a brace during your sleeping hours.
Of course, there will always be doctors out there who are quick to write a prescription for steroid treatments or anti-inflammatory medications and they work wonders for pain, but keep in mind that they are only masking the pain and not treating the injury. If you want to remain pain free, you will have to keep going back for more prescriptions. Preventive measures are always the best medicine. Pay attention to the signals your body is giving you and take care of yourself by adjusting your habits and environment accordingly.
Trust me when I say that taking the necessary steps to avoiding art injuries is worth the hassle. I don’t know of any artist who wants to give up drawing!
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