December 15, 2016

Crafting a solution to hobby-related hand pain

There’s nothing like the handmade beauty of an intricate quilt, knitted sweater, beaded jewelry or other craft. Unfortunately, those hours of repetitive motion can take a toll on your body.

“Frequent crafting leads to the potential for overuse injuries, such as tendonitis, muscle soreness, stiffness, and in the worse cases, joint instability or arthritis,” says Jonathan Tueting, MD, a hand surgeon with UW Health. “Anyone is susceptible, but the possibility becomes more likely as you get older.”

Carpal tunnel syndrome, where the fingers or hands go numb, is another common concern for those who spend a lot of time working with their hands, but hand anatomy also plays a role

“There are people who are born with plenty of space around their nerves, and no matter what they do they’ll never get carpal tunnel syndrome,” Tueting explains. “There are other people who don’t have enough space around their nerves, and they will probably get carpal tunnel no matter what they do. And then there are some people in middle, where their occupation, hobbies or life experiences can swing the pendulum either way.”

Fatigue, pain and numbness aren’t the only potential problems experienced by makers. For sewers, needle pricks can aggravate health problems for those who take blood-thinning medications or who have immune system disorders or diabetes.

So what’s a die-hard maker to do? Tueting, who has appeared on the nationally syndicated “Sewing with Nancy” television show and at the Wisconsin Quilters’ Expo, shares these tips to help you stave off injuries and protect your hand dexterity:

Reevaluate your habits

That doesn’t mean giving up your beloved craft. But you may need to give yourself more frequent breaks when working with your hands for long periods.

Also, pay attention to your posture and the ergonomics of your workspace.

“A lot of it focuses on body, neck and wrist position,” Tueting says. “With carpel tunnel syndrome, holding your wrist in a flexed position can lead to pinching of the medial nerve. It decreases space available to the nerve, and if you’re at risk of carpal tunnel, it can exacerbate your symptoms and make your fingers numb.”

Try a new tool

Sometimes a simple over-the-counter product can make a big difference in easing crafting-related woes.

“There are a lot of ergonomic tools and devices you can use to protect your hands,” Tueting says. “Wearing supportive splints can be very helpful.”

Splints can help by holding your wrist and fingers in the proper position, but if you’re having trouble straightening a finger (otherwise known as “trigger finger”), avoid splints because they can cause stiffness.

Support or therapeutic craft gloves are another good option. They work like an ACE bandage to reduce the impact of repetitive motion and provide relief for arthritis, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other hand/wrist ailments. For those working with sewing needles, leather thimbles, liquid bandage and under-hand aids can help protect your fingers.

Seek medical attention

If you’re experiencing pain, numbness or movement difficulties, talk to your doctor.

“If you’re having dysfunction and you’re not able to enjoy your hobby or your craft, then I would visit your primary care doctor, or if the problem is more complicated or severe, a hand surgeon,” Tueting says. “In more severe cases, steroid injections or oral anti-inflammatory medications can help alleviate pain.”

The most severe cases may require surgery for hand reconstruction or joint replacement, Tueting says.

Occupational therapy can also help.

“Occupational therapists are vital to managing a lot of these overuse activities, both for people who don’t require surgery and as part of the recovery and rehabilitation process for those who do need surgery,” he says.

“With proper prevention and treatment, you don’t have to suffer for the sake of your art.”