Knitting Ergonomics – Feeling the effects from too much of a good thing?

We all know the benefits of knitting. Knitting has been touted by psychologists as a way to heal, relax, alleviate depression, anxiety, and arthritis; a mindful activity that’s right up alongside meditation. What could be a better obsession! But like anything, there can always be “too much of a good thing”

Years ago, after long days of knitting for months, I experienced a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome. For about two months my hands were tingly, and needed dire attention to alleviate the symptoms. Thankfully, I’ve never had a similar episode, but even now I sometimes experience hand pain. I find typing on a computer for a long period of time more problematic or painful, than knitting. I believe the reason for this, is that more of the hand muscles are involved in the act of knitting, versus the more static hand movements when typing on a computer. For whatever reason, knitting in the round on circulars or double pointed needles can cause me to experience hand pain. In addition, knitting under a deadline is not fun, because you have to produce and be efficient, which means a finished project for a specific date. This entails knitting for long periods of time, causing potential harm to your body. The average knitter doesn’t typically engage in marathon knitting, but our knitting environment needs some attention if we want to avoid significant harm.

Our anatomy has vulnerabilities, depending on the type of repetitive work or activity we engage in, and that includes knitting. After speaking with a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician, here are the main categories of injuries that knitters may experience.

For the most part, knitting causes problems in the hands, wrists, along the arm, as well as the shoulder and neck region. At the top of the list are repetitive strain injuries; the overused muscles become inflamed at the muscle and tendon junction. For knitters this is often at the junction of the wrist and the forearm. Tendonitis can occur at the wrist below the base of the thumb, commonly known as DeQuvain’s tenosynovitis. Overuse syndrome of the forearm, specifically in the pronator and supinator muscles is a potential issue. Next is the possibility of pronator syndrome, where the median nerve is being pressed on the top of the forearm. 

A variety of nerve injuries including: a) the ulnar nerve pressed on too long at the level of the wrist known as Guyon’s Canal, affecting the little finger; b) carpal tunnel, affecting the median nerve; c) radial nerve issues; d) compressed ulnar nerve at the elbow; e) tendonitis at the inside of the elbow; e) Golfer’s elbow, affecting the outside of the elbow. If these weren’t enough complications, there are a variety of potential injuries to the shoulder and neck regions.

There are preventative measures to keep knitters working comfortably now, and for a long time to come. I would like to toss in a bit of advice, and that is outstretched fingers strain the wrist, as well as the muscles near the elbow. Therefore it’s better to hold a shorter working length of yarn without a large space between the finger tip and the end of the needle. If you tend to knit tightly, try to loosen up and not hold yourself in a tense position. Knitting tight also makes it more difficult to insert the needle tip into the stitches, which may lead to discomfort.

It’s important to take regular breaks, and avoid marathon knitting, particularly if you’re prone to problems. Pads or pillows at the elbow, may be beneficial, but is not always practical for a knitter because of how straight needles are held. Anti-inflammatory topical creams applied over the elbows and wrists can help. Posture is critical; sitting at 90 degrees at the hips and knees, with a pillow behind the back. Severe pain should be addressed by a physiotherapist, who can recommend some stretching techniques, as well as paraffin wax treatment. A paraffin wax bath is similar to the one you receive at the manicurist, and feels really good. Contrast baths for the hands are helpful, jumping between warm and cold water baths for a specific period of time. You may find hand exercises useful, like squeezing a tennis or small ball.

I remember complaining about neck and hand pain to my doctor once, and he told me to stop knitting. I felt as though he asked me to cut off my arm. Anyways, you don’t have to stop doing something you love, just take some preventative measures, make your knitting space comfortable, and you’ll be able to knit for as long as your heart desires.