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How I take care of my body as an illustrator (especially shoulders, neck and hands)

It all started a few years ago. I was just getting dressed when I suddenly felt an intense pain in my left shoulder and couldn’t move it anymore. Every time I tried to move my neck or shoulder, it was like arrows were piercing in it. I knew something was wrong and called the doctor. The next day I was referred to the physiotherapist and a new chapter in my illustration career opened. It’s called: how to take care of your physical health as an illustrator. And it was a long one. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy end and the pain is finally over!

I never talked about this before because it feels quite personal and I didn’t want to scare away potential clients. But now I’m healed and it’s all over, I really do want to share this story. I hope it will help other illustrators. But please note: I’m not a doctor or expert, this is just my personal experience.

So, here's my story...

Photo by Aline Bouma

When I decided to turn my illustrations into a professional career, I didn’t realise it would also be a physical career. But as you might expect: holding a pencil and being bended over a piece of paper for hours, isn't going to do your body any favours. My symptoms were a lot like IRS and carpal tunnel syndrome. My physio has been extremely helpful the past few years in learning how to handle and diminish it. I had ups and downs but everything was going ok - until 2019.

That year was a very busy year with loads of commissions. And something happened that was worse than neck and shoulder pain: my left hand (I’m a leftie) started to ache. Holding a pencil for more than 10 minutes was actually hurting. I had to wear a brace at night and draw significantly less than before to make sure my hand could heal. But at the same time, I loved drawing so much that I really struggled to take enough brakes and to stick to a schedule with less drawing. So it all went up and down during that year. And it still was going up and down at the start of 2020. Until March, when the lockdown came.

At the start of the lockdown, there was a lot of stress: almost no commissions, no work, and my physiotherapist was closed. So I was feeling a lot of things at the same time but one thing was for sure. Life was slowing down. I was slowing down. And after a few weeks I started to notice something was changing: it was my handpain. the pain was getting less, my hand was getting better. My shoulders felt better as well. I was still drawing a bit for myself but way less then before. 2 months of rest meant my hand was finally actually healing and the carpal tunnel syndrome seemed to be gone.

Around the same time the lockdown started, I got myself a professional drawing board, which means I can now work on a 30 degree angle while standing, instead of begin bended over a table all the time. That also made a huge difference! But I think it’s a combination of a lot of things which allowed my body to get better again.

The fact that my hand was healing properly made me so happy that I promised myself: I’ll never let it get so bad again. And while the commissions have really picked up since June, I still manage to keep my body healthy, my shoulders relaxed and my hand pain-free.

I’ll share some of the things with you that I did to get where I am now.

1. Getting professional help really made all the difference - go see physiotherapist or doctor

2. Taking enough brakes. I take a short break every 20 or 30 minutes, or at least I try. They’re not long, only a few minutes. I walk a bit, stretch my arm or get some coffee. I still have to set an alarm on my phone to remind me, otherwise I forget.

3. Starting every day with yoga stretches. I developed my own routine which is only 10 minutes and very low-key. It’s mainly aimed at my back, neck and arms. It helps to loosen my muscles in the morning. You can find a lot short and sweet yoga routines on youtube.

4. Taking regular walks. I noticed sports like pilates and barre workout were too intense and only made the cramps worse. For me, walks and dancing (with youtube videos or zumba classes), work best to relax my muscles and make my body stronger.

5. Doing hand-stretches regular throughout the day, like this. But be careful with this! Don't do anything that's hurting your hand. You don't have to stretch as far as they do in this video.

6. I use a grip on my Apple pencil which makes it a lot easier to hold, so there’s less pressure for my hand muscles. It looks a bit like the picture below. There are many different types.

7. Massaging my muscles with a tennis ball: check this video for an example ( from minute 3.07 for shoulder massage).

8. Sleeping with a brace when it was necessary. That way my hand couldn't move around at night and could fully rest and heal

9. Sleeping on an ergonomic pillow. It made all the difference for my neck! And it doesn't have to be expensive. Ikea has a very good and cheap one.

The pain is gone and my body feels good again. But I still have to be careful and remain doing my morning yoga routine and walks. I still use the Apple pencil grip and my ergonomic pillow. Taking enough brakes is the most difficult part for me but also one of the most important things. So I keep working on that. I currently mainly feel very relieved that it's all getting better. And the lockdown in the spring did make a lot of difference. It made me realise that your health is actually one of the most important things you have. And also that when you have a physical career, taking care of your body isn't something you do in between. It has to part of your routine every single day.

I hope this is helpful for other illustrators and artists facing RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome or similar physical conditions. If you have any questions, drop me an e-mail or Instagram DM!


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