Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fitness for illustrators, Episode 1: Healthy Hands with Household Items

Throughout my career as a professional illustrator and designer, I've suffered with several chronic pain issues due to hand, wrist and arm overuse. Over the early part of my career, these issues provided a lot of drama for me, when I had serious concerns about my ability to continue in my chosen profession and even as an artist at all, which I simply could not accept. I suffered terrible pain in my thumb joint, hands and wrist. I went to orthopedists, and had splints I'd wear all the time. At one point I had to immobilize my hand for three torturous, teary-eyed weeks. My ongoing problems were ruining my enjoyment of life and I realized that I had to find a way to correct these problems for good, but in a way that I could personally maintain. It was then that I became a life student of ways to correct chronic hand, wrist and arm issues, specifically as it pertains directly to my life, and my physical body, as an artist.

Over time, I discovered many exercises that can be so helpful for certain issues that I consider them actual cures, at least for myself and my own issues. I've found that, if done regularly and with effort, many exercises have been responsible for not only alleviating symptoms of pain, but also they have reversed the instabilities that lead to the problems to begin with. They condition the stabilizing muscles that so often get easily burnt out when we do detailed artwork with our hands. They also help strengthen the tendons that support them and attach them to your bones.

Exercising For Art: Fitness with Household Items
These exercises were originally taught to me about 7 years ago by a private physical therapist that I had hired in desperation during one of my flare-ups. At the time, my insurance-paid physical therapy consisted mainly of immobilization-style 'therapy' (splints and keeping movement to a minimum). After years of doing just that, I realized it was far from therapeutic. I needed aggressive work and I found it when I hired this private physical therapist who prescribed a battery of intense finger, wrist, hand and arm exercises that gave me back my life. Today I am going to show you three of those exercises. Each of the following are simple-looking exercises which you perform using everyday household objects.

"Isolation Gravity Cup" Exercise
Targets stability, strength and endurance in fingers and hand

Place your fingers and thumb inside the lip of a ceramic cup, as if your hand is a flower and you have toshut all the petals to make it fit. Then, spreading your fingers and thumb, stabilize the cup keeping it "lifted". This is an isolation exercise where one rep is an isolation hold of anywhere from 20 seconds to one minute. Do the rep for as long as you can. Work up to 10 - 15 reps.

"Towel Twist" Exercise
Targets larger and smaller muscles and tendons the hand and wrist, that tend to get weak. Specifically targets the outer area of the hand and wrist very well.

Twist a kitchen towel around a strong vertical pole or beam 2 - 3 inches in thickness.
Start the rep holding the twisted towel palm side up. Twist the towel int the direction of the towel's twist (in photo, it is counter-clockwise). In other words, the rep moves in the direction to tighten the towel, not loosen it, from the pole. Finish rep with palm facing down. Maintain stability and rigidity in your forearm during the performance of this exercise. Do not rush the reps for best results.  About one second per rep is a good time frame to shoot for, but you will know what works best for you. Work up to 50 reps per side. Exercise may be reversed as well, beginning with palm facing down and ending with palm facing up. If done every day, this exercise will give you great strength and stamina. It is one of the most effective exercises in my book.

"Thumb Rubber Band" Exercise
Strengthens your thumb joint. This exercise is particularly good for those with loose thumb joints.

Use one strong rubber band of moderate thickness and circumference. Have a sturdy table surface to perform this exercise on. Start by holding the bottom of a rubber band with the supporting hand's fingers flat on the table. Loop the thumb of the working hand around the rubber band as shown. In the starting position, your rubber band should not be slack, it should be taught but not tight. One rep is moving your finger or thumb from natural correct position (photo 1) to skyward (photo 2). Be careful not to push your working hand into the table too much, thereby slacking off. Use the table for general support, but your hand should absorb most of the workload. You are working to keep your entire hand stable, upright and rigid during the performance of the rep. this will help work those stabilizing muscles! Depending on the strength and thickness of your rubber band, you can do 20 - 30 reps on each side and you can work up to as many as you like.

Check here for some additional exercises you can do that require no equipment at all.

> Exercises for wrist and hand (photos and written descriptions)
> More exercises for wrist and hand (no photos, text descriptions)
> Exercises for Aching Hands (illustrations and descriptions)

If you liked this post, please let me know in the comments. :)


Anonymous said...

Fantastically useful. I get hand cramps from lettering and usually deal with them by pressing my fingers palm downwards against the floor and then pushing up and off them (which is impossible to explain well but I think you may know what I mean).

Thank you!

Redheaded Stepchild said...

Great post! This is so important for people who use their hands in their work. The traditional doctor's way is to tell us to stop using it. That's totally the wrong approach! And surgery is the worst thing you can do! I, too had pain issues and was recommended a wonderful book with exercises similar to yours. Great info!

Lucie Wicker said...

These are great! Glad you found something that helps you and thanks for sharing!

Di said...

Great - really helpful. Thanks!

Gina Perry said...

This is fantastic Kathy. It makes SO much sense. I have 'issues' from shoulder to thumb. I've always felt like my hands are just weak, so these really seem useful. TY for sharing with us.

Kathy Weller said...

Thanks so much everyone!
gina, I'm going to do other posts on this topic. I will make sure to add in a post about shoulder issues. I too have shoulder flare-ups. Usually it is rotator-cuff burn-out from over-Wacom'ing. I'll address it in a post!! :) Thanks for your comments!

Anonymous-Yes I know what you mean! My next post will focus on more finger/hand stuff so please stay tuned!!

Redhead - HEY I LOVED your post and thanks fo the book link. I will check it out. I'm so sorry about your Carpal. It sounds like you have had very similar situations to me! I had that crazy neurological test too. Boy do you feel like a lab rat OR WHAT during that? I feel like I was very lucky because the text showed no hard core damage, so I do feel like I dodged a bullet there. I think we have very similar philosophies. Prevention is the best measure for keeping our health, and exercise is just the best thing you can do for prevention of physical problems!! :)