Ergonomics for Artists – How to Recognize and Prevent RSI

Artists of all kinds, especially painters, sculptors and digital artists, can spend long hours at their workstations working at their craft. These types of prolonged and repetitive workloads can lead to what doctors refer to as “repetitive stress injuries”, or RSI. Some well known forms of RSI include carpal tunnel syndrome, “painters neck”, “tennis elbow” and tendonitis.

These conditions can range in severity, but they mostly have the potential to become a chronic condition, so it’s critical that artists make an effor to prevent and/or treat them. In this article we’ll go over some of the common ways that artists develop RSI, and how to set up an ergonomic workstation for your art that will minimize the potential for developing a repetitive stress injury.

How Can Artists Get Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI)?

RSIs can be a occupational hazard of art work, just like many other professions. The general causes of RSI including the following:

  • Continuous overuse of muscles and tendons.
  • Poor posture (both standing AND sitting posture).
  • Long periods of work without frequent breaks.
  • Lack of an ergonomic working environment.

Types of RSI That Artists Can Develop

There are numerous types of RSI that artists can develop. It depends on the method of art (i.e. drawing, painting, sculpting, digital art), as well as the tools and workstation. We list some of the more common RSI below:

  • Forward Head Posture: A condition that people classically link with having “bad posture”, i.e. being hunched over. This is common with sketchers, animators and craftspeople. This can lead to chronic neck pain, back pain and a variety of other side effects and conditions, such as temporomandibular disorders and discreased respiratory function.
  • Bursitis/Epicondylitis (e.g. “Tennis Elbow”): In this injury the sac of fluid around the elbow is inflamed or injured. As it’s name suggests it affects tennis players in their elbow joint. The technical name for Tennis Elbow is Lateral Epicondylitis, and Bursitis is a generic name and can affect any joint in the body.
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: The “Carpal Tunnel” refers to the ‘tunnel’ in the wrist where the median nerve goes through. This can get irritated, inflamed or compressed. This is often found in digital artists or anyone that uses computers for prolonged periods, but can also affect painters, sketchers and drawing artists. Severe cases can lead to numbness and nerve damage and may require surgery. Mild cases may simply cause some pain in the wrist area and can be remedied with wrist exercises and and adjustment to your egonomic workstation.
  • Tendonitis: The inflammation of tendons anywhere on the body, caused by overuse.
  • Trigger Finger: Common in computer related careers (i.e. repetitive mouse clicks or keyboard clicks), or an occupation that requires repeated gripping. It’s a form of tendonitis called stenosing tenosynovitis, and it is caused by the tendon in the finger becoming inflamed and folding the finger. In extreme cases the finger can get locked in a bent position.
  • Painters Neck: Named for house painters, not fine art painters, “painters neck” is neck pain caused by ‘looking up’ to the ceiling for prolonged periods of time (i.e. while painters paint a ceiling.)

Signs That You Might Be Developing an RSI

Look for any of the following signs to see if you might already by experiencing a RSI:

  • Minor or major discomfort during your normal work, especially including:
  • Neck Pain
  • Eye Strain
  • Wrist Pain
  • Finger stiffness
  • Foot pain (i.e. standing too long, poor shoe support, hard floors)
  • Having to adjust your position in order to avoid discomfort.
  • Reliance on pain relievers.

Any of these signs could be an indication you are at risk of developing, or are currently suffering from a repetitive stress injury.

It’s important to not delay the treatment of an RSI. The normal course of events for an undiagnosed RSI is the following:

  1. Minor aches and pains begin to be experienced.
  2. With no action taken, those pains will become more painful.
  3. Some minor steps are taken, such as taking breaks or OTC pain medication, but no change to improve ergonomic workstation or modify posture or working positions.
  4. Aches and pains get more severe, possible become chronic.
  5. Without appropriate action the situation can require surgery or lead to permanent damage.

Ergonomics for Artists – A Workspace to Prevent RSI

Depending if you are a painter, sketch artist, animator, sculptor or digital artist, you will have different ergonomic solutions for your workstation.  Digital artists will need a computer chair while animators might need a drafting chair.  However the principles are relatively straightforward.  You want the following equipment and considerations in your workspace:

  • Standing Desk – Standing desks allow artists to take frequent breaks from sitting. It’s important to be sure that you don’t also stand for long periods of time either, as that is a risk as well. Change position between a standing and a sitting position frequently.
  • A Wrist Rest (especially for Digital Artists) – This is important to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, and is crucial for digital artists. Anyone that has spent long periods of time tinkering with Photoshop or Illustrator will understand this need.
  • A Good Chair – The search for an ergonomic chair warrants a guide to itself (and we have a guide on the best artist chairs, for example). The basic factors to look for include lumbar support (to accommodate the S shape of the spine), adjustable height and recline features, and breathable fabric/cushions to avoid sweat and discomfort.
  • Tools of Your Trade – Depending on your medium and tools of creating art, you may want to take another look with ergonomics in mind.  We have guides on various art supplies (including digital pens, watercolor brushes, X-acto knives and more) which can help you consider your options.

And as for your processes and workflow, be sure to incorporate the following:

  • Frequent Breaks – This cannot be stressed enough, the reason the RSIs develop in the first place is because of prolonged periods of uninterrupted stress.
  • Stretching exercises – For the wrist, neck, back and anywhere you might be feeling discomfort. Carpal tunnel exercises are good practice regularly through the day. Full on Yoga classes are probably the perfect solution, as it stretches the entire body in a holistic way.
  • Strive for Balance – If you prefer painting on the floor, try sometimes painting on an easel, and vice versa. Also balance using the standing desk for a sitting posture. Feel free to experiment with what works for you, but always keep the concept of balance in mind.

Conclusion

Ergonomics for artists is not discussed as much as it should be. Many artists may already be suffering from RSI and not know it, and it’s important to always practice proper artist ergonomics to help avoid any chronic or permanent damage.

Following the above recommendations and keep the core concepts in mind will help to avoid these issues going forward.

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