Healthy, pain-free hands are perhaps THE most important tools in your hand-knitting toolkit. Yarn is important, to be sure — but of what use is even the most fabulous pink MOHAIR, if it hurts when you knit?
Over the years I’ve collected many bits and pieces of information about keeping your hands in good shape — here are a few favorites.
1) Take breaks.
This one is possibly the most important, and the toughest one to get a committed knitter on a deadline to do. How many of us have felt a twinge and thought, "Oh, that’s nothing, I’ll just finish out this row," only to find ourselves still knitting several rows later? Bad, bad, bad.
Small twinges do not get better with more knitting! If you spotted a mistake in your work, would you keep on knitting and see if it goes away by itself??
Best to stop for a moment, admire your progress, check for errors, rub a little lotion on your hands, do a little stretching. Knitting is not a competitive sport. You don’t get extra points for martyrdom or endurance.
If that’s not enough to convince you, hear this: I have found that when my hands get tired, my gauge gets considerably looser. Definitely time to stop knitting and take a break!
2) Eliminate bad habits.
Knitting habits, I mean. One of my recurring twinges is due to a bad habit I developed, of flexing my right index finger with every stitch, so I end up with tendonitis there every so often. After a few such bouts, I tried to stop doing it — and lo and behold, I found out that I don’t really have to bend that finger with every stitch — I’m just really, really used to doing it. I have been trying to get away from that habit over the past couple of years, with some success, and I’ve even avoided the tendonitis!
Other potential bad body habits to take a look at when you’re knitting include: your overall posture; tensing your shoulders & upper body; or maintaining a pinch grip or even just a strong "death grip" on your yarn or your needles. Any of these will cause you discomfort, at the very least, and may lead to big problems down the road — maybe even forcing you to stop knitting entirely. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen.
When I teach my Continental class, I always try to get any scrunched-up knitters to "lighten up" — I figure that when one is learning a new way to knit, it just might be an opportunity to nip some of these bad habits in the bud. Tight knitting is not happy knitting!!
Also, take a look at your lighting. Most homes do not have great lighting for tasks in the "living areas", and you may be holding your knitting in a funny way just so you can see what the heck you are doing!
Maybe if you knit mostly in your kitchen, you’ve got good task light — but in the family room, the lighting is a lot worse at my house. A lamp sits beside the sofa where I usually knit, so I can turn it on while I’m knitting, and leave it off if I’m not.
3) Don’t sleep on your hands.
I learned this one at a guild meeting years ago, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it changed my knitting life.
Sleep time is when your body repairs itself, and that job requires sufficient blood flow to any stressed or injured tissues. No blood flow = no healing from the daily wear and tear, let alone the extra that you’ve caused with your scrunched-up knitting marathon.
If you habitually sleep with your hands curled into fists, STOP. NOW. TONIGHT. This is probably the least-known tidbit in this post, but it can also be the one with the biggest bang for the buck, in my experience.
If you sleep with your hands under your pillow, and thus under the weight of your head, that can also impede the blood flow to those important extremities. This was the case with my MIL, who is a prolific knitter. She mentioned she was having trouble with her hands, and I suggested she try keeping her hands free while she slept. She reported a tremendous improvement a few weeks later.
It wasn’t a difficult change to make for me — a couple of nights of "Ooh, this is kinda weird" was a small price to pay for continued hand health. But, if you tend to sleep with your wrists actually bent, you may even need a brace to help you stop this.
OK, so those are some things you can do on the "not doing bad stuff" side of the equation. The next step you can take is to "start doing good stuff".
There are plenty of hand exercises and stretches. Obviously I am not a medical professional, and I can’t recommend specifics — although I do know that if any exercise or stretch is painful or causes tingling or anything like that, you should stop it. Duh.
Here are a couple of online resources — if you are interested in further info, a physical therapist is a good place to start.
And finally, here are a few of my personal favorite knitting stretches:
1) Stand in a doorway with your forearms placed vertically against the frame on either side. (Your palms should be facing forward, not out to the sides.) Lean gently into the open doorway and stretch all those chest muscles that get compressed by knitting, reading, cooking (not you, Rock Star), computer use, and almost anything else we do while looking down at our hands.
2) Place the palms of your hands together in a "prayer" position. Tilt them in towards your chest a little, and gently press your wrists downward so that your hands travel up and down in line with your breastbone.
3) Put your arms out in front of you, one hand on top of the other, both palms down. Interlace your fingers, but don’t grip tightly! Press your arms forward from the shoulders, and tilt your head down to increase the stretch.
There! doesn’t that feel better?