artist with tendonitis

How I cope with tendonitis as an artist

I’m a professional character animator and I’ve had tendonitis / repetitive strain injury for over a decade. In this article I’ll be using my own story to explain how it’s possible to cope with tendonitis and repetitive strain injury as an artist. For a while, I thought I wouldn’t be able to draw again. Thankfully I’ve found ways of dealing with the weakness and although I still get flare-ups occasionally, tendonitis hasn’t stopped me.

Throughout my story I’ll be summarising different parts with ‘lessons learned’. You should try the things I suggest in these parts from day one of your tendonitis. It took me several years to learn all of this stuff but there is no reason why you should wait.

How I got tendonitis / repetitive strain injury

I was at a graphic design & illustration University at the time but became interested in animation towards the end. None of my teachers knew a lot about animation, so I ended up setting myself two traditional style animation projects that were far too ambitious. Those animation projects permanently weakened the tendons in my hands.

To me at the time, 4 minutes was a reasonable length for a solo animation project. I also had 1 or 2 minutes to animate in a group project too. All-in-all I had about 5 or 6 months to get it all that animation done (while working on a dissertation). I had bit off WAY more than I could chew but didn’t realise.

I did around 500 drawings for my main animation project. By the end of it, my wrists were already hurting. To compensate for the lack of time, I would draw for 10 hours a day and sometimes more. I never had days off so my hands were getting battered by all the repetitive strain. I was about a quarter of the way through inking my 500 drawings when my right hand tensed up so much that I couldn’t draw with it anymore.

My deadline was just a month or so away, so stopping wasn’t an option. I spent a few days practising drawing with my left hand, then continued inking my drawings. After about 2 weeks, my left hand got just as bad as my right. I would switch between the two of them over the next few weeks but I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t lift the kettle in my house because my fingers and wrists were causing me too much pain and they felt too weak. My mother isn’t an artist but she inked 80 or more drawings towards the end for me. I probably wouldn’t have finished otherwise!

When I finally handed in that animation, I rested my hands. It took me over 2 months to recover from that animation. I had to wear wrist braces, go to physical therapy and put my arms in ice buckets. It was rubbish. The more I read about repetitive strain injury and tendonitis, the more I realised how much I had messed up. Damaging the tendons leaves permanent weakness. I wasn’t sure what that meant for me.

Physical therapy helped me a lot. The therapist I saw was the first one to tell me that I had tendonitis but he also showed me how my poor posture had contributed towards my pain. He informed me that one of the nerves in my arm was also too short. To demonstrate this short nerve, he put pressure on a part of my shoulder and replicated the pain I had in my wrist from tendonitis. From that moment on, I focussed more on my posture and started doing stretches.

Summary of lessons learned at origin of tendonitis

  • Drawing, typing or doing anything repetitive with your hands for hours and hours without break can lead to tendon inflammation, even in younger people.
  • Once damaged, tendons in your hand will always be weaker than they were before, even after they recover.
  • Your less dominant hand is weaker than your dominant hand. Don’t expect the tendons in your least dominant hand to withstand strain for the same amount of time.
  • Tendonitis / repetitive strain injury can get so bad that you cannot perform menial tasks such as picking up a kettle, holding a book open or opening a door.
  • A tendonitis flare up can take months to calm down.
  • Bad posture can shorten your nerves and worsen tendonitis / repetitive strain injury.
  • It’s worth going to see a physical therapist. Not in pdf form or over the internet. Go to see one in real life.

1 year after getting repetitive strain injury

One year after I had originally messed up my hands, I was working at a graphic / web design job. It was going ok for the first few months. On month three or four though, my hands started to become painful again. I had been doing a lot of HTML / CSS coding. My fingers were typing and clicking constantly throughout my work day.

I thought the pain wouldn’t get too bad because I was usually only working normal hours and I’d take my weekends off. Unfortunately, the pain became much worse and I had to take a week or two off work without pay.

When I returned to work, I started using a wrist rest for my hand and alternated the hand I used to use the mouse. That helped a bit, though I could often feel tension in my hands by the end of a full week. Clearly, the wrist rest and hand alternation wasn’t working. I’d later find that a graphics tablet and vertical mouse were better options.

Towards the end of that first year I joined a gym and began doing weights. That combined with all the typing really messed me up. My hands became painful again and it took about a month to heal. I quit my job during that time. Not because of my tendonitis but it was time for me to move on anyway.

That first year was really nerve wracking. I didn’t know if I’d be able to continue working in art because I kept hurting myself all the time. My flare ups were worst during that first year and I was starting to wonder if I should consider preparing a backup career.

Summary of lessons learned after one year of tendonitis

  • One specific activity may have begun your tendonitis / RSI but you will likely find that other activities will start causing the tendon flare-ups.
  • You need to learn new ways to work and find more ergonomic tools for getting your job done (eg vertical mouse / graphics tablet).
  • When doing strenuous exercise you will need to focus on your form more and build yourself up more slowly than other people to avoid tendon flare-ups. A coach could be helpful for getting your form right.
  • Repetitive strain injury can cause anxiety. Try to take one step at a time without worrying too much.

A couple of years after the original injury

A few years after my original injury, I was still working in graphics (mostly doing web design). I had found a few ways to minimise the amount of strain I put on my hands while coding. Mostly, I had to make sure I took regular breaks, used good posture and I adjusted my typing style so that I wasn’t slamming the keys all the time.

I’d get flare ups now and again but I could deal with it without taking time off work. After the first few years I started to feel repetitive strain creeping up on me long before it became a major issue. I think that must be common. You know what strain feels like at that point so you just calm down whatever you’re doing as soon as you feel tension.

By this stage, I had started doing simple stretches throughout my work day and begun taking more breaks.

Summary of lessons learned after 2 years of tendonitis

  • You need to learn what the start of a flare-up feels like and alter your behaviour or stop immediately when you feel it. The earlier you stop, the quicker you’ll recover.
  • Good posture is essential.
  • Stretching throughout the work day helps significantly.
  • Taking regular breaks is essential, even if they are very short breaks. It’s important not only for the strain in your hands but also the strain in your eyes and the rest of your body.

More than ten years after originally getting tendonitis

Now it has been eleven years since I first got tendonitis. The bad news is, my hands are still weaker than they should be and will never fully recover. The good news is that it didn’t stop me from achieving what I wanted to with my career. I barely get any flare ups anymore because I’m so used to taking precautions against repetitive strain.

Since my original injury with tendonitis, I have animated feature films, I’ve coded websites, I’ve designed album covers, drawn countless life models, painted things while on holiday, built wooden boxes, done DIY around my home, continued playing guitar… my tendonitis hasn’t stopped me.

The moral of this post is, don’t let tendonitis cause you too much anxiety or sadness. You should be able to manage. Many, many artists deal with repetitive strain injury. Every animation studio I’ve worked at has a few people who use one or more things to limit their repetitive strain. Many use graphics tablets and ergonomic chairs. Some use vertical mice. I’ve seen a few use mobile arm rests that clamp on to their desks. They look like they could work but I haven’t tried them.

Here are a few things I do to minimise my tendonitis while working on art:

  • I use a graphics tablet instead of a mouse to reduce the amount of clicking I have to do.
  • When I do use a mouse, I make sure it’s a vertical one so at least my wrist isn’t twisted.
  • I try to position my monitor, desk and chair in the most ergonomic way I can.
  • Sometimes I use a stand-up desk. Stand up desks help a lot.
  • If I have to type or code anything, I take regular breaks from it and don’t hit the keys very hard.
  • When I play guitar, I limit myself to an hour or so because I know that’s the maximum I can go to without building up too much strain.
  • When I draw, I don’t grip the pencil as hard as I used to, I change the way I hold the pencil regularly and usually stop after 2 hours for a break. Because my original injury was from drawing, sketching is my biggest weakness. I still draw a lot though. So long as I take several breaks and don’t draw for days and days, I’m usually fine.

Here are some things that didn’t work to minimise my tendonitis:

  • Pills of any kind. I tried several enzyme pills and several supplements but they were all bullshit, even those from organic shops. Don’t waste your money on that rubbish.
  • Padded mouse pads (they miss the point… repetitive strain injury won’t be helped until you minimise the repetition of whatever it is that is causing pain).
  • Using chairs with arm-rests… because usually the arm rests don’t usually line up with the surface of the desk anyway. Usually if the arms of the chair do line up with the desk, you can’t get the chair under the desk anymore or your arms are too far away. So only use arm rests if the chair design is exactly right for your desk.
  • Bullshit exercise programs and paid PDFs put on the internet by people trying to make money out of a bad situation.
  • Wrist braces. They’re good while you have an injury but not as a preventative measure. You’ll just end up weakening the muscles you would otherwise be using to position your hand. Repetitive strain injury is caused by repetition. If you’re still clicking your mouse in a wrist brace, it’s still going to hurt. If you’re still gripping your pencil hard in a wrist brace, your pain will still be there.

Bonus tips for tendonitis

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome isn’t quite the same as tendonitis. Learn about the differences and go to see a doctor to diagnose you properly.
  • I don’t recommend getting into climbing if you have tendonitis in your hands. I’ve tried it a few times and while my technique was likely bad because I’m a beginner, climbing made my tendons flare up and hurt for days afterwards every time.
  • Anything that requires a lot of forearm strength can cause you more pain and inflammation than it should. Be careful about what tasks and hobbies you choose.
  • Be careful with weights and don’t progress too quickly with them. I have given myself bad tendon flare-ups several times by using weights.
  • Exercise regularly because good body strength helps guard against flare-ups.
  • Tendonitis can cause you to adjust your posture or the way you work so that you put less strain on a specific area (like the wrist). Be warned that the pain can move to other areas by working in unnatural ways. For example, shifting my posture to put less weight on my arm has caused back and shoulder pain in the past.
  • When you’re in the middle of a tendon flare-up so bad that you can’t do anything but watch television or read, consider using audiobooks. Holding a physical book open or tapping an e-reader’s screen can be painful during a tendon flare-up but listening to an audiobook is fine.

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