A little more than a year ago, Rochelle New started seeing her doctor to address the pain in her hands, wrists and elbows. The persistent aches had developed after hours spent on her laptop, writing posts for her sewing blog, Lucky Lucille, and for Craftsy, on top of all the time New spent doing graphic design work, knitting, sewing garments for herself and making bags to sell in her online shop.
After anti-inflammatory drugs and wrist braces proved unsuccessful at treating the pain, New’s doctor told her something that would leave most makers in a cold sweat — she simply had to stop using her hands.
“At the time, it felt like he was asking me to stop breathing!” New says. “How is a designer and a crafter supposed to just stop using their hands?”
“I felt utterly defeated. I was in pain and I was sad for quite a while as I figured out how to deal. Cutting back on everything was the biggest help in letting my wrists and elbows finally rest and heal up,” she said.
New decided to ease up on the time she spent in front of her computer, leaving her writing gig at Craftsy to focus on Lucky Lucille.
“My personal blog obviously suffered when I couldn’t sew or knit as much, therefore I wasn’t creating new content to merit new blog posts,” New says. “My daily page views really dwindled during that time. In an effort to cut out as much extra typing as possible, I stopped engaging in social media and responding to blog comments. I felt a real disconnect with my readers, which I’m still working to regain. I also closed my online shop, since I wasn’t able to sew new products. A year later, I’m still evaluating how to make that income back without subjecting my wrists to the repetition of assembly line sewing, which gets physically taxing very quickly. I’m considering selling PDF patterns for the handmade items I used to sell, which is a lot of computer work up front, but less physically demanding in the long run.”
If New’s story sounds familiar, or brings up worries because you run a business that depends on a repetitive movements — including time spent managing your Etsy shop and posting to social media — we’ve gathered some expert tips to help prevent and cope with injuries that are common for crafters.
Debbie Amini, an occupational therapist with an expertise in hand rehabilitation, says crafters are definitely at risk for developing repetitive stress injuries, with symptoms that include stiffness and pain in the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers, sometimes with pain isolated to finger joints or the side of the forearm, where the thumb and wrist come together.
With fine, detailed work such as quilting, crafters will see more problems in the hands, while larger crafts, such as weaving on a loom, may cause pain in the larger arm joints, says Amini, who currently serves as director of professional development for the American Occupational Therapy Association in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Sometimes problems are brought on by the prolonged and repeated nature of the activity,” Amini says. “Other times, pain may be due to the pressure used on the body to complete the activity. For example, I enjoy making quilted balls at Christmastime. I need to insert over 100 straight pins into each ball through multiple layers of fabric. By the end of the season, I find that the base of my pushing thumb is painful. Not using a thimble can also lead to pain on the tip of my thumb.”
If someone already has a problem, and the motions that they do while crafting are similar to what they do while they’re on the computer or cell phone, the symptoms of a repetitive stress injury may be exacerbated, Amini says.
Figuring out which motion is causing or exacerbating the pain is the first step toward treating the injury.
About eight months after she started dyeing self-striping yarns, Michelle Berry, who owns Berry Colorful Yarnings, found that her wrists were in pain. After a small break from creating the popular striped colorways, she realized that the pain came from the process of winding each skein of yarn by hand after dyeing. The discomfort also affected Berry’s knitting, a big part of her business.
“After figuring out the trigger, I had to find a way to either moderate the workload, or find a different way to take the skeins from the dye set-up to being pretty and useable,” Berry says.
After trying compression gloves and ice, Berry saw a chiropractor, who recommended exercises to strengthen her wrist and the muscles surrounding them.
Taking a break has also made a big improvement — Berry recently hired other women to do a large portion of the winding, and now makes sure to help them avoid injury by using different techniques. One woman uses a device called a niddy-noddy that winds yarn into hanks.
“My wrist pain comes and goes now depending on the movements that I may do over and over again, but it’s now tolerable,” Berry says.
Preventing pain has a lot to do with the specific activity you engage in, but Amici has some general recommendations:
- Support your lower and upper back when performing an activity that involves long periods of sitting.
- Try not to hold your head forward to look down at your work for hours on end; try to bring your work up on a table, resting your arms on the table surface so that your shoulders aren’t holding up your arms.
- While you’re resting, be careful not to let the edge of the surface rest on your forearms. This may block your circulation and lead to tingling or numbness.
- Try to reduce the amount of time spent on one activity. If a craft has multiple steps, try to rotate though them, so one set of joints and muscles is not being overworked. Take a break for 10 minutes every hour by getting up, walking around and stretching.
- Use larger tools instead of smaller ones whenever possible. For activities that require force and repetition, try to use power tools, such as power screwdrivers or cutting devices. Certain tools, such as pliers or wire cutters, should be made for your hand size or ergonomically designed.
- Cut down on repetitive movements and forceful grasping, and use larger joints to get work done whenever possible. For example, it’s better to stand to use your forearm to turn a screwdriver versus sitting and using your wrist.
If you already have pain, rest is important, and Amini also recommends putting ice or heat on the injury, which may feel better for a chronic ache like finger joint pain due to osteoarthritis. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or Aleve, also may help.
Lisa has worked as a journalist in the New York Metro area since 2002, specializing in healthcare and real estate, and is currently a regular contributor to Newsday and DOTmed Healthcare Business News. When she’s not writing, or knitting shawls and sweaters, Lisa runs Indie Untangled, a marketplace and blog that promotes the work of independent fiber artisans, including yarn dyers, pattern designers and crafters of knitting-related accessories. Through the site, Lisa has organized the annual Rhinebeck Trunk Show, which is in its third year and draws hundreds of attendees.