A few years ago I decided to knit a sweater. I knit and I knit and I knit… until I couldn’t move my hands. At first I thought it was funny. I had crippled myself! Of all things, knitting! But it didn’t quit. I was terrified. What had I done to myself!? I had lost fine motor movement in my fingers and my pincer grasp was weak. It took unprecedented effort to even brush my teeth. My hands, wrists, and forearms ached and ached day after day.
I make a living with my hands, sewing, and I could hardly work. It was depressing. But even more depressing was the fact that it just got worse and worse, especially when I’d take on another big project. It has been a few years and I am still dealing with tight and sore arms here and there, but I have discovered a few things that work so well and are so valuable that I wanted to share them.
You are #1 and will take care of yourself because you want to continue your craft.
Do you agree? Good. Keep reading, then!
First, some prevention tips. These have to do with ergonomics and your work space. Take some time to make sure your work isn’t hurting you, and procure some items that will aid you.
- Use your tools! Tools are meant for getting jobs done. What sort of tools have you invested in? Do you have jobs around your work room that could be done more easily if you had the right tool? My advice: get that tool! Some ideas: try wearing your pincushion on your wrist, and switch from scissors to a rotary blade or electric scissors. Does your sewing machine have a needle-threader? Use it. Can you upgrade and get a knee-lift for your sewing machine? Do it. Spend the money now to have the correct tools, and save money on doctor bills later.
- Sharpen your blades! No really, take your scissors in to be professionally sharpened, and change the blade on your rotary cutter frequently. Cutting puts a lot of strain on the hands and forearm muscles. Ask anyone who has worked at a fabric shop!
- Lighting. Make sure your work space is well lit. Eye strain AND neck strain can be caused by trying to see your work in the dark. A domino effect can turn neck strain into back strain, arm strain, and worse.
- Ergonomics. If you haven’t already, consider getting a table meant for cutting, and a table and chair meant for sewing. You should be able to stand tall when you cut and sit straight when you sew.
- Stretch break! Take moments during a big project to stop and stretch. Stand up, walk around, use your legs a little. Flex and release your fingers, your wrists, your elbows, and your shoulders. Roll your neck. It’s easy to get swept away in a project to the point where you harm yourself. Set a timer if you have to. Here’s a good place to start: Make sure you are *at least* getting away for meals, and as soon as you need to use the bathroom. If you can’t do this, you know there’s a problem.
- Stay hydrated. I’m not going to give suggestions on what or how much to drink, but your joints and soft tissues need to be well hydrated to stay lubricated and to clear wastes. I do not recommend sugary and caffeinated drinks that “hydrate.” These types of drinks can actually tighten your muscles and worsen the pain.
- Breathe in. And out. Your joints and soft tissues also need a steady supply of oxygen to perform. Breathing is also scientifically proven to relax you, especially on exhale. Have you ever read the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping by Robert Sapolsky? I highly recommend it if you are interested in the science behind coping mechanisms as elemental as breathing.
Nobody can hurt me without my permission.
~ Mohandas Gandhi
Treatments for sore arms and hands:
If pain and swelling are severe and limiting your ability and/or enjoyment of life, visit your health care provider. They may be able to help you with some stronger anti-inflammatories for now, and a referral to a physical therapist. If you only find yourself with a prescription for painkillers, muscle relaxants, and a referral to a surgeon, don’t be surprised. But don’t go down that road before you have explored less drastic and more therapeutic therapies, like physical therapy, occupational therapy, massage (esp. focal treatments and careful deep tissue work), acupuncture/acupressure, and some of the tips in this article. I have personally been able to resolve flare-ups primarily with stretches (which are a form of massage if you think about it). But one or two stretches over the period of a couple days doesn’t cut it. I have to stretch faithfully, sometimes several times a day. This might seem obvious, but never expect results from any treatment, anything, if you aren’t willing to put in time and effort yourself. Commit to taking care of yourself. You — and your craft — are so totally worth it.
- Stretches and Exercises
- Ice vs. heat Use ice during the first 48 hours after an acute injury. After that you generally want to use heat. Ice reduces swelling and inflammation and reduces pain during the initial inflammation reaction; however, once an injury is healing you want to keep it room temperature or warmer to stimulate blood flow to the area. I will usually wrap an injured area with an ACE bandage or neoprene sleeve to make sure it stays at least as warm, if not warmer, than the rest of my body.
- Medications Sorry I’m not going to address prescriptions here because they’re less available, more expensive, more dangerous, and generally not that good for you. Myself and many others swear by gels and ointments with herbs like calendula and comfrey (like Burt’s Bees Res-Q ointment or Herb Pharm’s Herbal Ed’s (Original) Salve, and homeopathics like arnica and ruta graveolens (like Hyland’s Muscle Therapy or Topricin). They help with inflammation, pain, and healing. Rub them in to your skin well, and as often as indicated. There is now controversy as to whether taking ibuprofen during acute injury and healing is helpful or detrimental to healing, but small doses can be very comforting, I know! But follow the instructions on the label, please. In my experience as a nurse working in the hospital I saw so many cases of people who had poisoned themselves with Ibuprofen and Tylenol. It’s not pretty.
- Supplements I’m not sure I know of any to recommend, but anecdotally my Raynaud’s seems to be less active when I am on a daily vitamin D supplement AND doing my Qi Gong exercise. I stick to both because I’m not sure which has the most benefit
- Splints and braces Immobilizing a joint like the elbow or wrist at nighttime can be extremely helpful. Many people sleep in really awkward positions which are harmful to joints, for example the classic “arm tucked under body with wrist flexed”. It’s worth auditing the positions you sleep in. Braces worn during the day should in no way inhibit your normal movements, nor your blood circulation. You will see a lot of fabric store employees and grocery clerks wearing splints for tennis/golfer’s/knitter’s elbow. These work on the premise that they take some load off the inflamed muscle attachment at the epicondyle by squeezing the muscle a few inches away from the joint. But make sure you buy one that allows blood to circulate. The last thing you need is a tourniquet! The BandIT elbow brace is an example of a splint that allows circulation. It is aimed at people suffering tendonitis of the elbow and carpal tunnel, and has worked for me. I broke a foot and tore my elbow ulnar collateral ligament this year and if it taught me one thing, it taught me the value of wearing a brace.
- Get a massage. From someone else. Massage is also preventative, but helps during healing as well. It can be tempting to rub your own hands and arms, but really you are just straining your good arm. Have someone else do it. I’m sure they’ll be happy to!
There are a lot of stretches and exercises that target the neck, shoulders, arms and hands but two have been especially helpful to me as a sufferer of bilateral medial and lateral epicondylitis (golfer’s and tennis elbow) and Raynaud’s phenomenon.
- Shoulder opener Hunching at the machine causes a cascade of trouble both up and down the arm. Here are some variations for you to try:
- Shoulder Opening On The Wall, by Ojai Healing Movement
- One Armed Shoulder Opening, by Ekhart Yoga
- Shoulder opener on the wall, by Elise Miller
This type of shoulder-opening stretch seems to fix me up every time I feel my forearms getting tight. It helps counter-act the muscle-shortening caused by working at a desk, and also improves blood flow to suffering muscles and tendons. Normally, you will feel a stretch in your shoulder and neck, but if things are bad in your forearms you will feel it there. I do.
- Swinging arm warmups I originally learned these warmups in a Qi Gong class. When I was struggling with tendonitis and Raynaud’s I had a divine moment when I suddenly remembered my Qi Gong instructor talking about how these warmups move stagnant Qi (a Chinese concept of bodily energy) throughout the body. I started swinging my arms daily and after a few months I noticed that my Raynaud’s was gone. When swinging, I can feel the tight tendons in my arms pulling, and I know that I am at least getting blood flow to my fingertips, so I know it must be doing something. Anyway, what’s the harm? I chose this video because it shows best what I am talking about in the first 7½ minutes. The Qi Gong is lead by a Thai monk in robes named Ajahn Suthep. The music is nice, and you can hear tropical birds in the background. If that isn’t enough to make you curious…
Here are some other links to exercises that may help you:
There are so many exercises and stretches for necks, shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands. A professional like a physical therapist may or may not be able to show you the ones most beneficial to you. It’s best to get more than one opinion, and not get discouraged. What I’ve noticed is that when I find the stretch that pulls on my sore muscles in that pleasing “good stretch” way, it’s a stretch that will help me. I will then do it once or twice a day, sometimes for several weeks, until I get relief and my muscles are supple again.
It’s your body, and it’s your one shot to be comfy cozy in it. Do what you can, and try to avoid detrimental habits. Take my advice with a grain of salt and beware that I am not a doctor and I am not giving medical advice. I am simply listing things that have helped me with my severe tendonitis. Follow your own health care provider’s advice, and more importantly, your gut. The best of luck to you!