The BrushThralls are almost as well known for hobby related injuries as we are for BrushThralls.com. This week the BrushThralls resident Massage Therapist, Sarah Strohmeyer, works us over and gives us a synopsis of what we do right and wrong when we paint, and how to help improve it. ~the BrushThralls
Why Do My Shoulders Hurt When I Paint?
Are your shoulders tight? Do your fingers cramp-up or tingle after you’ve been sculpting? Have you had a knot in your shoulder that seems to be worse after you’ve been painting? You’re not the only one. As the Official BrushThrall Massage Therapist, I’ve worked with them to fix the badness they’ve done to themselves through years of hobbying. I also see these things in my private practice. Neck, shoulder and back pain are amazingly common. I mean, how many people do you know that DON’T have tight shoulders? In this article, I aim to explain which muscles are the problem and a couple of things you can do to reduce the pain you might have. I’ll also tackle a few referred pain conditions, which is where one part of you hurts but the problem is somewhere else.
Muscles are interesting. There are three types - skeletal, smooth and cardiac - but we’ll be talking about skeletal muscles. These are the ones that give your body shape and move your bones. They can be soft or hard, flabby or toned, overstretched or contracted. And they are responsible for most of the aches and pains we have. Now, I’m not a medical doctor, I’m a clinical massage therapist. That means I deal with soft tissues, like muscles and fascia. Fascia is the thin fibrous covering that surrounds your muscles and muscle fibers. Picture a clear produce bag with a bundle of celery in it. The celery is your muscle, with different stalks (muscle bundles) and each stalk has strings that run the length of the stalk (muscle fibers). The bundles and fibers make up the whole muscle, like the stalks and strings make up the whole bunch of celery. The plastic baggie is the fascia. It surrounds the whole bundle like a protective coating, yet it allows the muscle to move around like the celery moves in the baggie.
There are two reasons muscles hurt - they’re too tight or they’re over-stretched. Believe it or not, it’s usually a combination of both. This happens because most of our muscles are bilateral, which means we have them on both sides of our body. Good thing too, because our chairs would look really funny if we were lopsided. But because our muscles are working in pairs, one side gives while the other side takes. When you bend forward, your abdominal muscles contract to pull you forward and your back muscles, the Erector Spinae group, have to stretch and let you go forward. The pain happens when one muscle is stuck in contraction. Either the contracted muscle will spasm from being tight too long or the overstretched muscle will scream in pain because it’s not getting any oxygen and it can’t breathe. When treating the pain, sometimes the massage therapist will have to do a little detective work to see if the problem is contraction or overstretching. Because everyone’s body is different, there is no hard-and-fast rule that “if this spot hurts, it must be this muscle.” It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes it’s the complimentary muscle, the other half of the muscle group.
My guess is that a lot of you hunch or scrunch your shoulders while you paint. You probably lean forward and brace your elbows on the table and paint with your wrists, locking up your neck, shoulders and torso. You probably take shallow breaths too, at least in that position. If you do, quit it! And if you can’t stop, then take more breaks. Trust me, the model isn’t going anywhere. Take a break at least once an hour, a standing up break, please. I mean, go to the bathroom, smoke a cigarette, do something that gets your body moving. Don’t just lean back in your chair and change the channel on your TV. That doesn’t count as a break. Get up, stretch, take 5 minutes and come back.
Now that you’ve done that, let’s talk about neck pain. There are two main culprits for neck pain, Levator Scapula and the Scalenes. Levator Scapula does just what its name says, elevate the scapula. This one shrugs your shoulders. If you’ve ever painted for a long period of time without a break, especially if you hunch your shoulders, you’ve probably felt that tightness in the top of your shoulder. Your Scalenes are located in what is known as the Anatomical Bermuda Triangle. They are underneath other muscles, sometimes they can be hard to find and I can get lost there. They are also the cause of pain in your back, chest, neck, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.
Levator Scapula lives between your neck vertebrae 3-5 and the top edge of your shoulder blade. When it contracts, it pulls your shoulder blade towards the ceiling. To fix pain here, you need to lengthen or loosen the contracted muscle to keep it from going into spasm. Go get yourself a tennis ball. No, not the one the dog has slobbered on, get a new one. And get a clean tube sock too. Put the tennis ball into the sock and hang the ball end over your shoulder. Now, lean up against the wall with the tennis ball on the belly of the muscle.
You can adjust the pressure just by leaning into the wall more or less. There are really fancy tools that accomplish the same thing, but a tennis ball and sock work just as well. To strengthen the Levator Scapula muscles, grab a couple of weights or your textbooks and let your arms hang while you shrug your shoulders. ArkenTyre demonstrates how this works.
Strengthening your muscles is really just building up your tolerance level. The stronger they are, the more punishment they can take from you before they start hurting.
The Scalenes are a set of three muscles, Anterior (front), Middle and Posterior (back). They’re located in the side of your neck, between vertebrae 3-5 and the top two ribs. They start in the same place as the Levator Scapula, but they wrap towards the front instead of the back. The Scalenes do work they’re not supposed to, like help us breathe, and they don’t get a lot of relief. The primary function of the Scalenes is to extend, flex and rotate the neck and head. Lengthening the Scalenes usually requires the work of a trained professional, but you can use strengthening exercises to keep the tissues from contracting into painful bundles. ArkenTyre is demonstrating rotation.
You can also stretch the tissues by flexing and extending your head.
Just don’t make your head go all the way back because it hurts.
Time to get up and stretch again. Go take five and come back. Seriously. See you in five minutes.
Let’s talk about back and shoulder pain. Both the Trapezius and the Erector Spinae group are the problem children for back pain. Your Trapezius is named for its shape - the two parts together look like a big trapezoid or diamond. It’s the top layer of muscle that covers most of your back. It starts along the spine from your head to your rib cage and attaches on the spine of the scapula. Because it’s so big, it’s responsible for lots of work. The upper fibers help the Levator Scapula lift the shoulder blade, the middle fibers pull the shoulder blade towards the spine and the lower fibers pull the shoulders back down. You can lengthen and stretch the Trapezius with the same exercise. Wrap your arm behind your back and grab your wrist with the opposite hand. Tilt your head away from the shoulder that is being stretched. Now pull your wrist forward, bringing your arm around your back. Terarin demonstrates that here. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, and repeat on your other side.
Your Erector Spinae group is also named for what it does - it holds the spine erect. If you didn’t have these muscles, you’d be bent forward looking at your shoes all the time. If you bend forward to paint, you’re stretching these muscles for extended periods of time. You’re also contracting your abdominal muscles. After a while, they get used to being in that position and it’s hard to get them to go back to normal. For goodness sake, DON’T do crunches! If you have low back pain, DO NOT do crunches! You’re only aggravating the problem. What you need to do instead is grab a broom handle. Put it behind your neck, with your hands on the broom handle on either side of your head. Bend your knees just a little bit. Now, bend at the waist, keeping your back straight, taking your chest toward the floor. Then stand up straight. Do this exercise 10 times. What you’re doing with this exercise is making the Erector group contract, which counteracts the stretch that it is stuck in.
If you tend to lean backwards in your chair while you paint, you have the opposite problem. You’re overstretching your abdominal muscles and contracting your Erector Spinae muscles. There are two exercises you can do for this one, depending on your level of flexibility. The easiest for armchair warrior is to do a forward bend. Extend your arms out in front of you and bend at the waist.
If you’re feeling like a challenge, try the Plow stretch. Lay on your back on the floor and swing your legs up like you’re riding a bicycle, then let your feet drop back towards the floor on either side of your head. Make sure you keep your torso straight, though, because if you turn your hips or waist sideways, it can be painful. ArkenTyre and Terarin just aren’t this flexible.
On to one of my favorite topics: referred pain and Myofascial Pain Syndrome or MPS. IF you’ve ever had a “knot” then you’ve had what’s also called a trigger point or Myofascial Trigger Point. These little devils cause no end of problems for the majority of us. And they’re incredibly misleading. I have numerous clients that have tried everything, some of them even resorting to surgeries they didn’t to have to alleviate pain that was caused by trigger points. Referred pain is when you have pain in one spot that is caused by something in a different area, and it’s usually caused by a trigger point. Pain in your hands and fingers can be caused by a tight muscle in your neck, soreness in the upper arm can be a problem in the top of the shoulder and tingles in your forearm and middle finger may lead to a problem with a muscle close to your armpit. Referred pain is one of the most interesting concepts in soft tissue therapies. Unfortunately, there are so many problems that can be caused by trigger points, it would be impossible to include them all here. If you have a pain that doesn’t seem to go away no matter how you rub on the sore spot, you probably have a trigger point that’s elsewhere that is causing the pain. There are some excellent books and websites out there that talk about referred pain. I recommend that you look into this topic further.
The last thing I want to mention is your workspace. You’ve probably heard of ergonomics, if you’re in the corporate world you’re most likely sick of hearing about it. But when it comes to your painting space, anything you can do to correct bad posture is a step in the right direction.
The picture above shows a bad workspace. ArkenTyre is curled forward, his shoulders are hunched and rolled forward, his head is dropped, his posture is horrible. Even his feet aren’t in a good location.
My suggestions here would be to straighten the back and neck so they are in better alignment and to make sure your knees are bent at a 90 degree angle.
If you can’t paint sitting upright, it’s okay to bend at the waist as long as you’re not dropping your head forward. This isn’t ideal, but it’s better than curling up into a ball.
Terarin also has an interesting workspace. In his case, interesting doesn’t mean good.
His knees and ankles are bent at crazy angles that most of us can’t even get into and his head is dropped forward. First, he needs to straighten those legs out.
Next, he needs to sit up straight and stop hunching over.
Now he’s complaining of not being able to see, not having enough light. Best thing for this is to get a light on a swinging arm. Get rid of the old desk lamp that doesn’t move and get yourself something that can be adjusted to your posture. Or get used to aches and pains.
I hope that you’ve been enlightened, or at the very least, entertained.
Sarah Strohmeyer is the owner of Multnomah Therapeutic Massage in Waco, TX. She is a Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT) with the State of Texas and will soon be a Nationally Certified Massage Therapist (NCMT). The information in this article is not meant to diagnose any problems you may have. If you suffer from musculoskeletal pain, seek professional help. If you are undergoing treatment, your physician supercedes anything in this article.