My Experience With Physical Therapy
In June of 2020, I had a virtual appointment with a physician's assistant to determine whether the pain I was experiencing in my right hand and wrist was carpal tunnel, tendonitis, or something else entirely. The PA had me go through a series of physical tests to figure out what positions triggered my pain. She ultimately said that it was likely I was experiencing a mild form of tendonitis and referred me to a physical therapist.
Seven months and a few hundred dollars later, I want to share my experience and opinion on how valuable physical therapy turned out to be for me, and what the benefits and drawbacks could be for other creatives who work with their hands. I will be using the past tense when referring to my PT, although there is every possibility that I will have more sessions sometime in the future if need be. His name has been changed.
When I walked into Alex's office, I was greeted by a plethora of plants, atmospheric lighting, a paper screen, and a couple of salt crystals. Alex greeted me cheerfully behind a blue N95 mask and, after I washed my hands, walked me behind the screen to do a couple of mobility tests. He then had me lie down on the massage table and deftly pinpointed the pain trigger areas in my palm, wrist, thumb, forearm, elbow, and shoulder. I came in to treat pain in my hand, but turns out my whole arm was involved! At that time, the pain he triggered was extremely intense. He did some kind of magical therapist witchery which involved pinching the pressure points and slowly moving my arm and fingers to relieve the pressure and massaged my arm and palm. Then he gave me a series of exercises to do every hour of drawing time.
What surprised me was that many of them had to do with increasing my core strength and reversing the forward contortion of my spine from being hunched over a desk. I had expected wrist work or some tennis ball squeezing, not mountain climbers and planks. However, I dutifully did my assignments because you can't cheat your body and PTs always know if you don't do your homework.
My sessions started off being once a week, then every other week, then once a month. The pain got less and less intense and I was able to draw more often and for longer amounts of time. There were a few more exercises added, a couple used elastic bands got involved but most often it was just me and my body. I had to do a couple of variations on the plank, some back and wrist stretches, cobra pose, some cat-cows, and...wait a second isn't this just a bunch of yoga moves? Yeah! Basically! Once I realized that the exercises I was doing were almost always guaranteed to be represented in a Yoga With Adrienne video, I decided I could probably handle this on my own and not pay $200 every couple of weeks. My last PT session was in November.
So far, I was right! This month I finished the 30 day Yoga with Adrienne challenge and have felt almost no pain despite drawing about 20-30 hours a week. In October I started a routine of doing YWA every other day and a more intense workout using Sworkit on the off days. Now that the 30-day yoga journey has ended, I plan to return to that schedule.
Now, am I saying that I wasted those weeks working with Alex? Absolutely not! And if you're experiencing immediate pain, you should definitely seek medical help and a PT might do wonders for you. I think for me the biggest benefit of doing physical therapy was getting to the place of realizing that I need to take my health seriously if I'm going to be able to do what I love for many years. Sometimes pain clarifies things for you. We're not made to do the same motion over and over again for several hours a day! The human body evolved to thrive with a diversity of movement. Luckily I'm young and healthy so I was able to bounce back pretty quickly. A lot of artists will benefit from seeing a PT, but if you are looking to take measures to prevent from getting to the point of needing one, I have four pieces of advice that really worked for me.
Get an adjustable drafting table that can be positioned at multiple angles. Being able to work without being hunched over a flat desk did wonders for me. They can be expensive so look on craigslist or buy nothing groups to see if you can get used ones. Angled desks allow you to sit up straighter and rest your forearm on its surface, preventing strain to your elbow.
Do regular physical activity throughout the day! I recognize that yoga is not accessible to everyone so find what works for your schedule and your physical ability. Whether that's martial arts, dance, yoga, ring-fit, a walk around the neighborhood, have a regular active routine. Everyone is built differently and there's no one-size-fits-all way to move your body. Start slow and easy and build a habit. I'm planning a whole blog post about habit-forming so stick around for that. I highly recommend Yoga With Adrienne, but there are tons of lovely yoga instructors out there that are great too.
Buy the book Draw Stronger and do a couple of the exercises listed in there a few times a day. It's basically physical therapy in a book and many of them are very accessible for people with limited mobility.
Only do your creative practice for 50 minutes at a time and then take a 10 minute break to stretch, do a couple exercises of your choice, and drink water. I'm planning on writing a whole blog post about this in the future but using Focusmate has changed my life! You can schedule 50-minute sessions every hour which allows for 10-minute breaks in between. The turbo version is only $5 a month and it is 1000% worth it!
I want to restate that these are preventive measures that worked for me. If you're experiencing pain, get help immediately. Don't tough it out, don't ignore it. You will only hurt yourself. I hope these tips will be useful to you or someone you know. Please subscribe to my email list and follow along for more! I'm going to be sharing more from my time so far working as a freelance illustrator and I'd love to share what I've learned with you!