Managing Carpal Tunnel – an Artist’s Methods

So as I’ve mentioned before, I have carpal tunnel. It’s not so bad to need surgery, but it definitely needs daily management to keep my hand in check. For artists (and crafters too), carpal tunnel is one of those conditions that seems to loom on the horizon for all of us. But, whether you have it or not, there’s ways to care for your hand that help prevent it in the future, or keep flare ups at bay.

Bare in mind, I am not a medical expert or a doctor by any means. This article isn’t an alternative to professional medical help. These are simply methods that I use to keep my hand in check so I can carry on crafting and drawing. If you want to give any of these methods a shot, then definitely have a chat with a medical professional first!

Bookmark this article, and share it to your artist friends. They may find it super helpful. I hope these methods that help for me might help someone else, too!

Stretches

This one is suggested by literally everyone, because it really is helpful if you do it right. There are a myriad of different stretching techniques out there, and a quick google search will send you all over the show.  I’ve found two videos that help a lot for me.

This first one was shared to an art community that I’m part of. It’s a simple set of three stretches that can be done before an art session. Treat art like an exercise: always stretch and warm up first!

This second one I found during a recent flare up. It includes stretches for the full arm, if my nerves are pinching in my shoulder, it can help there too. 

Posture

And by posture, I don’t just mean for your arm. So, it might be a bit annoying hearing people rag on about posture at desks, but the right posture can really help with your wrist’s comfort. I’ve found, bizarrely, that making sure my shoulders are pulled back rather than hunched forward helps, too. The carpal nerve runs the whole length of the arm, and making sure it isn’t pinching in my shoulder has helped with managing pain in my wrist, too. Always remember when seated: shoulders up and back, wrist level with your leg. Of all posture advice, I’ve found these to be the most important.

Another posture tip: while most posture diagrams suggest having the computer screen low enough that your eyes are level with the top of the screen, I’ve found this to be a horrible position. When my eyes are level with the top, I find myself hunching and pulling my neck down to look at the bottom of the screen. So, instead, my eyes are level with the middle of my screen. This might not work for everyone, but it’s worked an absolute charm for me, and I sit up straighter with a better posture this way.

Exercise

This one is super hit-or-miss and I doubly advise checking in with a medical professional on this one. However, I’ve found working out my upper body, especially my arms, has helped a little with managing pain long term. I mostly focus on lifting weights slowly, and rowing for cardio. Strengthening my arm muscles seems to help cushion my nerves. 

That being said, this one is definitely more for tendinitis than it is for carpal tunnel. From reading around a lot, it seems exercise can make CTS worse for some folk. While it’s working for me, definitely be careful on this one!

Wrist rests

Okay, this one is my absolute favourites. For me, wrist cushions help pad my wrist when I’m working at my computer, whether drawing or typing. Finding the right angle to work at can be difficult, and it’s even worse when your desk just isn’t built for posture in mind. So, a simple wrist cushion can help a whole bunch. I wrote a tutorial on how to make wrist cushions last time, so check it out here!

I’ve found attaching a wrist cushion to a glove helps immensely, as it keeps the cushion in place regardless of what I’m doing. This is especially helpful when I’m drawing, as my graphics tablet isn’t always set flat on a table. If you’re doing work away from a desk, then tying a band or a glove to your wrist cushion might be very helpful.

Technique

How you draw matters just as much as how often. One of the easiest ways for me to manage CTS is to draw from my arm, not from my wrist. Well, I say easy, but it still takes a lot of practice. There’s a few methods that can help improve drawing technique, whether digitally or traditionally.

The first one is try to use a big drawing area if possible. Of course, it isn’t always possible. If you’re like me, then chances are you have a very small drawing tablet or sketchbook. Larger sized ones can be difficult to come by. However, an artist friend once shared this tip with me: draw at a distance. If you find it difficult to draw from your arm on a smaller tablet or sketchbook, then place it away from you, until your arm is mostly straight. Drawing from a distance can force you to draw with your arm rather than focusing on small wrist details.

On the flip-side, if you’re doing digital art, then zooming in can help a lot. This is because you’re forced to do much larger strokes when drawing details, instead of the small focused strokes that can set off carpal tunnel.

Finally, you can do an exercise where you move each joint in turn across your arm and focusing on how it feels. Getting a feel for each joint can help you be more aware of which joints are moving when you’re drawing. Ideally, you want to focus on your shoulder or your elbow, and not your fingers and wrist.

Breaks

Last but not least, take breaks! It’s such an obvious choice, but so easily overlooked. If you’re like me and get in the flow way too deeply, then setting a timer is invaluable while drawing. I find the Pomodoro technique to be especially helpful in this. 25 minutes active working, with a 5 minute short break is equal to 1 full Pomodoro. After 4 of these, then take a much longer break of 30 minutes. These intervals lets me focus better, while also keeping my hand in check. You can find out more about it here.

Be mindful of how your wrist feels, and learn to recognise the signs of a carpal tunnel flare up in your own wrist. Before my most recent flare up, I ignored the twinges and weakening fingers. However, I’ve drawn since, and while my hand occasionally feels tired, the feeling is much different to an impending flare up. Always be prepared to set your art down when you need to: you’ll be so much more grateful if you did.

tcc - managing carpal tunnel for artists

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