Oct 052012

A forty-year-old construction worker gets arthritis in his hands after absorbing the vibrations of heavy tools and machines for years.

A call center worker keys in orders straight through her eight hour shifts. She’s scheduled for carpal tunnel surgery next week, and she’s worried about how she’ll pay the bills and take care of her four-year-old while she recovers.

A promising young pianist has to take some months off from her music for physical therapy after a sudden wrist injury. She was practicing one day and felt something snap in her wrist. In an instant her career veered off the road.

Those are some extreme examples of hand problems, but they are not too unusual. People strain their hands more than they realize. It’s not uncommon for creative people to work their hands twelve hours a day or more when creative work is combined with a day job. Musicians are especially vulnerable to hand and wrist injuries since they often push to do far more than others do with their hands. But a hand problem can also interrupt or limit the work of sculptors, painters, writers, and dancers.

Here are some suggestions for taking good care of your hands.

  1. Take charge: You are ultimately in charge of your hands. Pay attention when they feel tired, achy, or in pain. Get some medical attention at the first sign of trouble. You can blame your job at the computer keyboard all day. You can blame your violin teacher who didn’t give you proper technical guidance when you were in high school. Genetics and luck are all there too. But you are the one who is in charge, and you’re the one who has to solve the problems and stay healthy.

  2. Get the blood flowing. When the wrists and hands are full of blood, they heal and recover better. Let your arms hang limp at your sides, and feel the blood gathering in your hands. Try “the rag doll” yoga pose by bending forward at the waist and hanging limp. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but try to get used to the feeling of blood gathering in your hands.

  3. Get stronger. Find some regular exercise to strengthen your arms and upper body. You can often prevent hand problems by strengthening your arms from elbow to fingertip. The muscles that move your fingers and wrist extend the whole way back to the elbow, so stronger arms make for stronger hands. Vinyasa yoga is great for this with the “upward-facing dog” and “downward-facing dog” poses. Or you might be more inclined to hit the weights at the gym, getting on the chin-up bar, or putting in some good old push-ups.

  4. Use ice and heat. when a football player gets to the locker room after a game, he needs ice to bring down the swelling of a banged-up shoulder. A marathon runner may use wet heat on her sore back after run to treat chronic pain. If you are playing music, typing your novel, or painting for hours a day, you’re also an athlete. Don’t ignore the physical toll your work takes on your body. Learn how to use ice and heat to treat various kinds of soreness and injury. You might also want to try this less conventional treatment for tired muscles: Fill up a big mixing bowl with raw oats, rice, or dry beans and run your fingers through it for a few minutes. It’s a great massage for your hands, and believe it or not, it feels really good.

  5. Take a break. There’s an old saying among musicians: “Don’t practice for a day and you’ll feel it. Don’t practice for a week and your audience will feel it.” This is true, no doubt. The way to have a meaningful artistic life is to pursue it passionately and constantly. But there are times where a rest is the best thing for you. If you’re a little numb with your novel and your hands are sore every day, maybe close up that laptop for a week. If your fingers are sluggish and ignoring your brain’s commands at the piano, you might need a few weeks of very light practicing to rest your hands. Find a slow time between gigs and deadlines, and take a break.

  6. Check your technique. How’s your posture? Where do you hold tension in your body most of the time? Are you using your hands in the most efficient way possible? We usually think of musicians when we talk about proper technique, but a lot of writers and artists can also benefit from ergonomic improvements. A musician might get some lessons to check on her technique. Yoga, relaxation exercises, or Alexander technique can teach you to be more aware of your body and to use your hands more efficiently.

  7. Get good medical help. The hand is a delicate, complex structure of tiny bones, muscles, and tendons. Even a small injury is a big deal to the intricate structure of your hand. A wart on the back of your hand might seem like a simple thing to have removed, but keep in mind the risk to the tendons that are right there under the spot. Most hand problems should be taken care of by a hand specialist for these reasons. There’s just too much stuff too close together for you to take chances.

Here are two books that explain lots of great ways that musicians can take care of themselves, including their hands. Artistic people from other disciplines might find other resources to be more suitable to their activities. If you have a good book or article to suggest, please leave a comment to let us know.

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