Navigating Hand Pain As An Artist

It seems like we don’t talk about this very much, but it’s come more and more to my attention lately that a lot of us are really struggling through physical pain in our hands and arms in order to make our art. I showed a photo of my hand hooked up to electro-pads the other day and I got a ton of questions about it and what I’ve been doing to help manage pain through this intense grind time.

I first started feeling pain in my hands from my job in November 2022; I’d been working on a lot of intricate beading on the dress form and I noticed my hands getting tired a lot faster and more easily than before. By January, it had moved up into my arm/elbow and was keeping me from doing things. I asked my chiro about it, and he determined that it was tennis elbow from overuse. Not the worst diagnosis, but something that I had to be mindful of going forward. And since I’m not the kind of person who really rests or lets up on projects, it has become a day-to-day maintenance thing. It has not gotten better, and sometimes it gets a good deal worse, but I have been trying really hard to manage and care for my hands and arm so that I can still make the things I want to make.

If you are experiencing hand and arm pain, you already know about proper daily stretches, heat/ice, Tiger Balm/etc, anti-inflammatories, y’know, the usual. So I’ll blow by those things, assuming you’re already doing them (you should definitely be doing the stretches).

There are two treatments on top of the ones listed above that I have found very helpful – one is called muscle stripping, and it’s basically an extremely aggressive form of massage that helps relax the tendons, increase blood flow and work out scar tissue. It’s not super pleasant and it tends to bruise, but it helps significantly, and can be administered by a PT, chiropractor or RMT. If you don’t have easy access to these services, you can get a massager for home. I have one that is very strong – it has two revolving knobbly things that I can put my arm between and it can massage quite strongly. It also has optional heat. It’s ideal if you have at least one session with a professional so you have some idea of what you’re doing, please don’t take this as medical advice, I really don’t want you hurting yourself even more.

Another thing my chiro did that helped a lot was a kind of acupuncture with electrified needles. This freaked me out a bit because I am low-key scared of electricity, but I couldn’t deny that it made things feel a lot better. I’d heard several friends tell me about their tens machines, so I asked them more questions about them and it seemed like a good fit for me, so I got one. This has also really helped.

Mab Graves manages her arthritis by wearing a sling on her working arm while she paints – I have tried this, and it does help take some strain off, but unfortunately because of the way I need to work around my frames, it’s not feasible very often.

Last but not least, I sleep with braces on my wrists so that I can’t sleep with my hands all crunched up under me – something I absolutely do otherwise. By immobilising my wrists during sleep, I wake up with them feeling a lot better.

So! These are all the things I’m doing right now to manage hand and arm pain and keep myself able to continue working. Feel free to ask me any questions and/or let me know your best tips!