Keep Your Hands Working: How to Avoid Injury in the Studio


Do you ever get stiff muscles or cramped fingers during a long day in the studio? Maybe your hands, legs or feet even start to tingle or become numb. Artists, whether they are in the studio for hours, lifting heavy loads or simply typing on the computer, are susceptible to damaging muscles, nerves, tendons and other tissues. What can be done to treat injuries — or better yet, prevent them?

What are MSDs?

You may be familiar with carpal tunnel syndrome, but have you heard of De Quervain’s, epicondylitis or thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS)? All of these conditions are musculoskeletal disorders, frequently referred to as MSDs. If you are a visual artist, you need to be aware of them.

MSDs are typically described as “repeated micro-trauma of the structural tissues of the body — nerves, tendons, muscles and ligaments,” explains Dr. Ann Marie Dale, a research instructor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who specializes in epidemiology.

MSDs mimic aging in that wear and tear takes a toll on the body; however, MSDs are more rapid than the normal aging process. “When you perform an activity at a normal level, you stress the tissues. You stop, the tissue recovers and goes back to normal,” says Dale. “If you stress the tissue more than it can tolerate, the tissue breaks down. If the tissue is not given adequate rest, the tissue won’t return to normal.”

“Tendonitis, nerve compression and conditions of the spine from degeneration or positioning are the types of general injuries that fall under the category of MSDs,” states occupational therapist Martha Paterson, who specializes in hand therapy, office ergonomics and meningeal care.

Artists are at risk for lateral and medial epicondylitis (more commonly known as tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow), two syndromes related to poor positioning of the wrist. In tennis elbow, pain occurs in the outside of the elbow; with golfer’s elbow, the pain is on the inside. De Quervain’s tenosynovitis is an inflammation of a tendon attached to the thumb that causes pain on the thumb side of the wrist.

“Every time you pinch something it hurts, and bending the wrist irritates it,” describes Paterson, who focuses on helping artists to regain functional use of their hands at her Burbank, California-based practice, Healing Hands.

Dr. Ann Marie Dale recommends that artists select one or two of the following stretching exercises (“Whichever ones seem to help you the most,” says Dale) and do them every 30 minutes as a “micro-break” from working:

  1. “The Number 5:” Make a fist then open the hand wide. Hold the stretch for five seconds. Do three to five reps. Repeat with opposite hand.
  2. Hold your elbow out straight, with your palm up and fingers straight. Using your other hand, push the fingers down to push the hand backward toward the wrist. Hold the stretch for five seconds. Do three to five reps. Repeat with opposite hand.
  3. “Chin Tuck”: Hold your head erect then pull your chin back toward your neck. (Keep the movement horizontal rather than lowering the chin as in a nodding motion.) Do 3-5 reps.
  4. Slow shoulder rolls and reverse shoulder rolls.
  5. Slow head rolls.

There are also various conditions that occur from nerve compression. Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) results when the median nerve in the wrist is compressed and can result in numbness, pain and hand weakness.

“Potter’s Thumb is really a form of carpal tunnel syndrome,” explains Monona Rossol, founder and president of Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety (ACTS), a nonprofit dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts. “It is typically caused by wheel throwing or wedging movements where the thumb is extended and tensed. Symptoms may include pain, numbness and tingling of the thumb, part of the hand, and may ache all the way up to the elbow.”

Compression of the small nerves in fingers can occur if you are putting pressure on the sides of your fingers from holding things. Thoracic outlet syndrome is a group of disorders that result from the blood vessels or nerves the space between your collarbone and your rib cage becoming compressed. TOS can cause pain in the shoulders and neck, and result in numbness in the fingers. It can be cause by poor computer posture. Lifting and twisting can place too much pressure on the spine and result in back and neck injuries in the form of spinal compression.

Recognize symptoms and risk factors.

If you experience stiffness, cramping or aching muscles, it may be a sign of localized swelling. Though you may feel it, the swelling may not be visible outside the body. Localized swelling is followed by prolonged swelling, muscle cramping and aching. Over time, you can develop symptoms of greater concern: burning, tingling, numbness and pain. In later stages, you experience weakness and loss of sensation.

“This whole thing is on a continuum. If you don’t give enough rest, tissue may have permanent damage,” notes Dale.

Awareness is a key factor for avoiding injury. If an activity hurts, you shouldn’t do it.

“Listen to your body while it is still whispering rather than waiting until pain shouts for attention,” advises Rossol.

It is also important to spot tasks with factors that cause problems: repetition, force (lifting, pushing and pulling, pinching or gripping), heavy weight, awkward postures, contact stress, cold temperatures and vibration.

Get some rest.

Rest is the first step to recovery after an injury. The rate of recovery depends on the individual as well as the circumstances.

“Some people have a personal disposition to developing problems; some get faster quicker,” remarks Dale.

Duration, intensity or force of the activity, and the frequency that you do the activity are all things that can affect improvement.

“Relieving more of the stress will speed up the recovery. The little bits here and there add up to something meaningful. Over time, tissues will recover and get you into the ‘good’ zone. Then you will be able to tolerate the stress,” states Dale.

However, if you border on discomfort with just doing normal activity and then try to tackle a big project that requires a great deal of that time or exertion, you are likely to re-injure yourself.

As far as seeking treatment, Paterson suggests adhering to “the two-hour rule.”

“If you still have the same amount of discomfort or pain two hours after you stopped the activity, then your body is working really hard to recover. If pain has not gone away by the time you go to bed, if it disrupts sleep, and you don’t feel good the next day and you have to alter activities the next day, you need to go see somebody.”

The earlier you seek medical intervention, the more likely you are to resolve the issue without pricy treatment or surgery.

“Delaying treatment can leave you disabled for long periods of time or even for life,” Rossol cautions.

When it comes to choosing a therapist, try to select someone who can relate to your livelihood as an artist. “No artist wants to hear, ‘Just stop doing your art,’” says Paterson.

Find the right tools. Use the right technique.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSHA, the federal agency that regulates workplace safety and health, offers helpful resources on ergonomics and computer workstation environment at

Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety: ACTS publishes short data sheets on over 60 different technical subjects related to health and safety in art and theater, as well as a monthly newsletter. Visit

There are a variety of approaches for improving your conditions at work. One solution is to let your equipment do the work for you. Use a jig to hold vibrating tools instead of your hand. Warm up your clay before you begin working to make it more pliable. Be sure to choose the right tool for the right job. For tools that you grip with your hand, the larger the diameter, the less you have to exert, but the less precision you will have. The recommended handle diameter for tools used for power, such as hammers, is 1-1/2 inches. There is no recommended handle diameter for small precision tools like paintbrushes, but artists are cautioned not to go smaller than necessary. There are hand support tools available, such as spring-loaded scissors or ergonomic pens, that could be prove useful for artists. (For a brochure, visit Paterson’s Web site,

Pacing yourself and taking frequent breaks are another set of solutions. When you pace, or alternate tasks, you do one activity for a certain period of time, then switch to another to give the muscle group a chance to rest.

Modify your techniques to avoid uncomfortable positions or movements. For jewelers and watch repair professionals, Dale recommends a set-up that includes a support for the forearm, which stabilizes the elbows and shoulders, allowing precision work to be done using the wrist and fingers. For ceramicists,

Rossol points out that there are many hand positions for throwing.

“Find hand positions that work for you. Watch a lot of people work, try new things and listen carefully to your body while you learn.”

Anti-vibration gloves can help you to avoid nerve damage, but different gloves address different frequencies. Try a pair, and if they help rather than cause another problem, use them.

“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that all gloves won’t work, just that that particular glove doesn’t meet your needs,” says Dale.

Approach braces, wraps or other orthopedic devices with caution because they could create other problems, transferring stress to another area of the body.

“The only time you should use these aids is after they have been prescribed and fitted for you by a physician or licensed therapist who specializes in ergonomic injuries or sports medicine,” warns Rossol.

The solutions mentioned above fall within the realm of ergonomics, the science of adapting the job, equipment and workplace to suit the worker. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), offers helpful information on its Web site,, regarding good posture, work process and issues of lighting, glare and ventilation. (See sidebar for additional resources.)

According to Dale, who is also a Certified Ergonomics Associate, injuries from computer usage are not so much a result of repetition from keyboard or mouse use as they are attributable to static posture due to poor workstation set-up combined with not enough movement. She recommends setting an alarm clock, which forces you to do a periodic mental-physical check along with a few stretching exercises. (See sidebar for exercises.) Rossol suggests warming up muscles prior to working, and easing into heavy work schedules after holidays or periods away from work.

When the pain does go way, it is important not to revert back to your old habits. Dale cautions artists to be vigilant for the remainder of their lives. “Tools change, materials change, techniques change — stressors change. Be aware of this.”AC


Contributing writer and communications consultant Ligaya Figueras specializes in business writing, marketing and media relations for visual and performance artists, writers, nonprofit organizations and specialty service providers. Follow Ligaya on Twitter at, or friend her on Facebook at