This week I learned that THREE fellow colored pencil artists who draw a lot have been forced away from their drawing tables indefinitely by wrist, elbow and shoulder overuse injuries. In addition to the total ban on drawing, their doctors have told them to avoid all typing and wear splints. It’s making them very unhappy. A fourth artist friend is pushing on due to a deadline and figures she’ll take a short break when it’s past, and I fear she’ll end up joining them.
You might not think of drawing as a strenuous, injury-causing activity. But any activity that involves long periods in the same posture, making the same movements over and over, can lead to repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, pinched nerves, and more. Potters, painters, illustrators, sculptors, digital artists and even tattoo artists are all at risk. Such injuries are sneaky; they develop very slowly and may already be bad before the first symptoms of tingling fingers, numbness, or reduced grip strength. Recovery usually requires complete cessation of the activities that caused the issue, and can take months, sometimes years.
So how do you prevent such injuries? There are entire books devoted to the subject, but here are a few tidbits that every artist should take to heart:
- Take frequent breaks. Everyone is different, but for me, ten minutes every hour is about right. This does NOT mean “work for six hours and then take an hour break”!
- During those breaks, stand up, move around, go for a walk, look out the window, do some simple stretches and exercises.
- Work with as vertical a surface as you can, so you’re not hunched or bowed over a table. This will prevent neck, shoulder and upper back problems.
- If you sit at a drawing table, use an adjustable-height chair that provides good lumbar support and allows your feet to be flat on the floor.
- Use good lighting. Yes, your eyes can sustain long-term injury, too, because they are also operated by muscles! Full-spectrum lights, positioned to fully illuminate your work area without any glare, will help prevent eyestrain.
- Get regular exercise. Getting your heart pounding, sweating a little, gulping in some fresh air and moving your body will boost your creativity, too! Vigorous hikes in nature are my favorite way to accomplish this.Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the power of exercise to combat chronic repetitive stress injury. This happened about 15 years ago when I taught group fitness classes as my “hobby job”. There was a guy who always attended the yoga class right before my interval training class. One day he stayed for my class. He looked kinda pissed off the whole time, but he finished the hour. I figured I’d never see him again. But he came back, and he kept coming back, always looking a little angry, never saying a word. After about a year and a half, one day he approached me at the end of class and said that my class had done wonders for him. He said he’d suffered with wrist, elbow and shoulder problems for years, had to wear wrist splints all the time at work, had been to multiple therapists, etc. But the interval training, with sets of just 12 repetitions of various dumbbell exercises between the work intervals, had somehow done the trick. He started with 1 lb. weights because that was all his wrists could stand, and now he was up to 12 lb. weights and didn’t need his splints at work anymore. I was blown away, and grateful that he shared his success to which I had unknowingly contributed!
- Listen to your body. If you do start feeling tingling or numbness or pain in fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder, neck, or upper back, stop what you’re doing and see your doctor. I’m serious. Your body is telling you that you’ve gone too far. These are not related to the discomfort you get from using too heavy a dumbbell for bicep curls, which goes away in 72 hours or so. Tingling and numbness usually signify that nerves are getting pinched by inflammation.
Finally, here are some links to further information to help you understand how to make your drawing activity more comfortable and less hurtful in the long run:
I hope this helps prevent the list of my artist friends who are out of commission from overuse injuries from getting longer!