Graphic Artists and Repetitive Motion Injuries.

This past year I’ve been battling aches and pains as a result of working behind a computer for over 6 years. Yep, the years of abuse have finally caught up with me and it’s official… at 30 years old, I’m no longer a spring chicken.

In my research to figure out what my specific ailments were caused by, I didn’t find a whole lot of help out there when it comes to the graphics community. Most everything out there is geared for typists and carpel tunnel syndrome…. The Graphics Artist Guild had probably the best information on the subject with this article: “Repetetive Motion Injuries – Symptoms and the Proper Work Place Set-up.” Here’s an excerpt:

Tens of thousands of injuries each year are caused by repetitive motions. There are different ways injuries can happen, but they all result from stress or strain imposed on some part of the body from a task’s repetitive nature. This includes typing, computer mouse use and recurring motions such as twisting, turning and grasping.

Repetitive Motion Injuries can be quite painful and become progressively worse without treatment, possibly resulting in complete loss of function in the affected area. Tingling, numbness, or pain in the affected area, and loss of flexibility or strength are common symptoms. Hands, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders and backs are the most common areas affected.

wacom intuos 3 graphics tablet for computer drawingThe majority of my problem was caused by working waaaaaay too many hours using a Wacom Intuos 2 Graphics Tablet on a desk that was about 6 inches too high with a non-adjustable chair. As a result my shoulder was in constant strain and tension along with the ongoing mental stress of self-employment and looming project deadlines. Not a good combination. I worked like this for well over a year and never really gave the discomfort much of a second thought, just par for the course with this line of work I figured. That is until it started to effect the muscles down the center of my body that are right next to my lungs and ribcage. That got my attention.

The pain was incredible and I was more than a little concerned because it didn’t feel like it was being caused by my tablet/computer use. They call it “Referred Pain” which is pain or discomfort in one area that’s caused by a chain reaction from another area. After a couple of doctors visits and a couple of x-rays to rule out lung cancer, the next logical step was physical therapy.

I was not at all looking forward to taking time out of my day a few times a week to play around with rubber band exercise equipment, but I’ve had great results from it. I’m on week 7 and I feel as though my shoulder is back to about 90%. Along with physical therapy however, comes a lifestyle change that I’m struggling to maintain and probably always will. New changes include the following:

  • Good Posture. No more slouching, sitting up straight is everything.
  • No more 16-18 hour days behind the desk.
  • Breaks. One at least every hour or so. This has been the toughest because you risk losing the “flow.”
  • Exercise. Even if its just a daily 15 minute walk.
  • Stretching. Specific stretches to my unique issues has helped tremendously.
  • Alternate between the mouse and tablet when possible.

So I guess with all that said, the best advice I can give to you is this: LISTEN TO YOUR BODY, and don’t ignore discomfort. Everyone needs to find the right ergonomics setup for their individual situation. Pain is there for a reason… to warn you that something is not right.

Anyone out there with a similar experience? I’d love to hear about it.

12 Replies to “Graphic Artists and Repetitive Motion Injuries.”

  1. Its funny, I purchased a Wacom as a ergonomic solution. This was years ago after reading an article about how injurious mice are and how natural pens/pencils/stylii are, motions being with the hand/arm instead of the fingers. Over the years I’ve found it not only comfortable but much much faster. As a non-artist, I configure the stylus buttons for enter and double-click, speeding things up even more.

    I’ve found the most comfortable position to be in a chair (or even a sofa) wide enough so the tablet sits beside me at seat level with my arm resting and pivoting on my elbow. Even 16 hour days end up hurting other places before my hand/arm.

    As an aside, these guys have the best keyboards available, an excellent table companion:

    This new Mac happy version doesn’t have a matching numeric keypad, so I’m looking at getting one of these:


  2. BTW,

    The key to tablet speed is absolute mapping, configured as “pen mode.” It can take some getting used to, but you learn to position the pen where you want the mouse to go, pulling it there instantly, instead of the normal/slower – pushing the cursor around. You can even set up configurations where it behaves differently in different software.

  3. Since I switched to a Mac at the start of last year I’ve developed wrist and hand problems that I never had before. I’m used to holding the mouse at a bit of an angle (being left-handed and constantly having to share with right-handed mouse setups) – so I tend to use my middle and ring fingers to click. The Mac mouse is a lot heavier than any of the generic ones I’ve used previously. I’m thinking of swapping it, which is a pity, as its such an elegant design.

    I was warned about RSI when I was choosing a drawing tablet, so I went for the biggest one I could afford, to maximise arm movement and keep the drawings relaxed. A colleague mentioned that doing tight, precise drawings on a small tablet caused problems. I find I relax a lot more drawing with the tablet, can prop it on my lap and sit further from the screen, so it is a good change of activity. But nothing beats drawing with paper and pencil.


  4. Working for hours at a time at a desk can have severe negative impact on your back, neck, shoulders, and more. If you must work at a desk for long periods of time, be sure to take frequent breaks to stretch and be sure you find a chair which is a good fit for you and consider purchasing an angled foot rest.

  5. There’s a tai chi stretch that I’ve been using for a while and it seems to help. Hold both hands together as if praying, then rotate your wrists in a figure eight motion. It seems to have allayed the pains I used to have – and taking up drumming helps too!

  6. I found that getting a bigger monito made a HUGE difference, I think I was pearing to closely which was causing me to lean forwards. It all feels much more comfortable now and all I did was get a bigger screen. same desk, same chair but better.

  7. sitting at the computer for hours can also really strain eyesight. I do all sorts of stretching at my desk; a post I’m working on now for my blog, but how do we get our eyeballs to stop hurting. ugh.

  8. i’m using thw wacom tablet for almost three years, started from graphire and finished with intous 4 L, i said i finished because I can’t use it anymore nor digital painting wich i earned money all that time. so i need to take another path now he-he. it’s sad, but i can’t resist the pain anymore… i almost can’t seat when using tablet, tried all kind of desks, chairs, settings in software, drivers, but only tablet provide such pain, not mouse or keyboard. :(

  9. I must agree with Alex. After 4 years of using graphires, Intuos2, 3 and 4 large, I am now at the point where I have to make decision as to how im going to continue my career as a graphic designer and digital painter. I have an unbearable pain in my wrist from using the pen 6 days a week, I don’t use the mouse anymore, since that has it’s issues. Im using a thick cloth under my hand when I operate my computer, but there is still pain in my pisiform in the carpal bone group. Thinking bout trying wrist donut

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