Back in the Saddle – Take care of your back

Ergonomics Part 1: (This post ended up far longer than I’d intended (yeah, shocking, I know!), so I will split it into 2, and offer you part 2 tomorrow.)

Lately, I’ve noticed that I hunch a lot when I sew.  This is on the longarm or at the domestic machines.   The result of this is that I “hurt” and I can’t sew for long periods of time.  So I thought I’d talk today a little about ergonomics, both at the stand up and sit down types of machines and your cutting table.

As Jamie Wallen says in his youtube video about machine height:

You only have one spine and you only have one neck, so you want to take care of it.

I’ve had neck and spine issues since about 1993.  Back then, I had a car accident, and of course being a teenager at the time, I thought I was still invincible, and didn’t go for the X-Rays that the doctor wanted to send me for.

Fast forward now 20 years.  I have 2 bulged disks in my lower back, I have damage to my back, neck,  shoulders, arms and wrists from working on computers and various weekend warrior activities.  I’ve been going to a chiropractor for about 15 years, and I can tell you when the weather’s changing.  Some days, I walk very carefully, because it hurts too much to do otherwise.  About 6 weeks of this year, I spent a lot of time laying on the couch because of injuries to my back that wouldn’t have happened with no existing issues.

This is not somewhere I want you to be from sewing.  And it’s a very real possibility.

You see, when we sew, we have a tendency to plop the machine on a table (or set up the longarm to the “default” height) and proceed to try to “get used to it”.

I spent the last 6 weeks quilting (not nearly enough) with Lucey, and of course procrastinating on Ryan’s Christmas present.  So now, I’m doing marathon sessions at both machines to get things done for Christmas.   (I’m still convinced he’s going to get the thought of a quilt for Christmas)

Spending this sort of time, day after day makes you notice your ergonomics, whether you want to or not.

For the last week, I’ve especially buckled down, and you know what I’ve learned?

  • I can ache in more places than I ever thought possible from “sewing”,  and Aleve / Advil / Voltaren and other anti-inflammatories aren’t the answer, even though they’ve been a temporary solution for the last few weeks while I push for a deadline.  (See what bad habits I learned in IT?)
  • I’m apparently taller than I look or feel.  My table heights, chair heights and longarm heights are all well above what most people say they should be for someone “my size”.
  • I can’t spend very much time at any machine that’s not set up to these heights, because I’m too uncomfortable.  About 20 minutes at a time at the longarm, and about 45 minutes at a sit down machine.
  • When I can’t sit at the sewing machine, I get up and munch.  I really need to be able to “work” longer, or I’m going to look like Jabba the Hutt (Star Wars) soon.

Sound familiar? So how do we deal with this?

First, we have to figure out why we ache.  There are a couple of reasons this can happen.  One of them is “benign” and the other isn’t.

  • If you’re simply not used to an activity, your body will have to adapt and “learn” the activity.  This is a lot like why we doodle to learn quilting designs.   The body needs the muscle memory.  This is something that is good for your body in the long term, as long as you don’t do damage while “learning”.   Even something as simple as getting a new car can do this.  The position of everything is different, and your body has to learn – adapt – to the change.
  • If your “form” is bad when you’re learning a new activity, or even when you’ve been doing that activity for years, you’ll be causing damage.

How do you tell the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain”?

It can be a little tricky.  It involves body awareness, and a little time.  You can’t ignore any of this pain though, because it takes very little time to do permanent damage as well.  Pain is your body’s way of saying “something needs to change”.  In it’s early forms, it’s a warning.

About a month ago, I spent 3 days straight “doodling”  – my wrist and hand were sore for a couple of days afterward.  There were a couple of reasons for this:

  1. As a (recovering) computer geek, the last time I had a pen or pencil in my hand for any amount of time was about 20 years ago.  My muscles were unaccustomed to this sort of work, and 3 days was not enough to get past the muscle retraining part of the program.
  2. As when learning a lot of new skills (or retraining into an old one), often we’re more tense than we need to be, and we tend to exaggerate the movement required.  For my doodling, this manifested as “pressing too hard”, which caused pain.  One way I’ve been training my body not to press too hard is to use a mechanical pencil when I doodle now.  If I press too hard, the lead breaks.   (Warning! Something needs to change!)

How do you determine in this case whether you’re doing damage or not?

For me, usually it’s :

  • how much does it hurt – if the pain is sharp or excruciating, I’m likely doing something wrong.  If it’s an ache, there’s a good chance I’m creating muscle memory, or it’s a warning.
  • how long does the pain last – If the pain lasts considerably longer than I was doing the activity – likely I’m doing damage.  If it’s a day or so for a day’s worth of work, and especially if the pain isn’t sharp? Good chance I’m stretching my mental and physical muscles.
  • does it feel like my “form” is right – this one is a little weird.  I can sit at a computer and work for 20 hours a day, and I will do it in pain, because I got “used” to it.  My posture has always been bad at the computer (I’m sitting on the couch typing right now) and I have to make a mental effort to “sit right”.  When I do, I feel better.   When you start to find your muscles are sore at the machine, sit back for a moment and take stock of how you’re asking your body to work.  Is it realistic?  Is it fair to expect your organic machine to do this sort of work?  If it’s not, correct it.  If you’re not sure how you should sit or feel at your workstation, consider checking with a professional.  If you have access to an ergonomist at work, take advantage of it.   Lots of companies have someone trained in ergonomics these days.

Sometimes only you can answer these question, sometimes a quick Internet search can help you find a guideline.  In fact, there’s a chance that’s how you ended up here in the first place.

Know that what works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, so be wary of anyone that tells you “your table should be x” high” or some other type of “fixed” measurement.  Your equipment must fit YOU.  Not some fictional, average, standard, stereotypical? person.

Today’s post brought to you by Aerosmith – Back in the Saddle


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