Have I injured myself out of a fun hobby?
November 20, 2020 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I think I've asked about various parts of this before. Months and months ago, I decided to relieve lockdown tedium with a new hobby, which was model ship building. I found it...not that much less tedious than lockdown, but it led me to wood carving, which I now LOVE. My hands, however, do not love it.

After my first carving project, my left wrist was hurting. I kept carving little birds and stuff, figuring in some twee Marine way that pain was weakness leaving my wrist, like I honestly would just keep at it despite it hurting some and then hurting a lot later on, because I thought it was my hands/wrists getting stronger.

I asked around here and some other places, got some good tips about using different tools and giving it a rest, did all of this to some extent. No more pain radiating up toward my elbow, but I seemed to have a solid case of De Quervain's Tenosynovitis/trigger thumb/blackberry thumb/whatever. A little pain at the base of my thumb, a little just below on the wrist, and a very very clicky thumb. I started noticing this when typing and texting and stuff.

A few weeks ago I was like "this is not getting worse but it isn't getting better" and emailed my MD could I talk to a physical therapist. He said it sounds like you need a cortisone shot, and made a referral. I got the cortisone shot, which made my thumb feel entirely better for a day.

It's two days later and it feels maybe slightly better but no longer BETTER better. As before, it comes and goes, but I woke up with a stiff and clicky thumb and a bit of pain in my wrist.

YANMD but does this sound like something I can get past? I miss carving little animals, but I'm also 47 and in that stage where it feels like warranties are expiring on various parts. The doctor who did the cortisone shot jokily said as much, though he did not suggest giving up carving, merely marveled at how much fluid there was in the pad below my thumb where I'd been gripping blocks of wood. Is there a point at which an injury like this means I have to abandon the thing that led to it?
posted by less of course to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're doing full figure work? I can't speak to the medical aspect of it, but you might try flat panel relief carving - when it's well set against a work top you wouldn't need to use your thumbs to anchor the piece or to support the cutting motion. It's much more forearm and palm focused.
posted by Think_Long at 9:21 AM on November 20 [3 favorites]

I have a similar issue brought on by too much knitting/crocheting. when it was REALLY bad i had to take over a year off and did nothing, which really sucked. you don't want it to get that bad. you need to take more frequent, longer breaks. unfortunately that means you don't get as much done as you want, but it does mean you get to keep doing it. when i sometimes feel fine, i push it and go for two hours straight or whatever, and really regret it for days afterword.

so, take more breaks. enforce that with yourself so you can keep carving for many years!

(as an aside, i don't think the immediate jump to "get a cortisone shot" was necessarily the best decision by your doctor. normally they recommend PT or something before bringing out the big guns.)
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:49 AM on November 20 [10 favorites]

I don't have much to say about dealing with the effects (except to commiserate that any soreness in the hands seems to linger forever) but I do have some questions about the causes, i.e. materials, tools, and technique. Are you pushing a dull chisel into seasoned hardwood while holding it in your other hand? Probably not, since that's worst case. But I don't think you injure yourself lightly tapping chisel into a piece of softwood that's held securely by vise.

One universal characteristic of pros who work with wood is that they know all about sharpening tools, and which tools hold an edge. And they know about wood. Basswood is considered the best for carving in some quarters.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:27 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]

An Occupational Therapist might be able to evaluate your methods and suggest better ways to hold things or improve the handles on your tools.
posted by soelo at 10:43 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]

I think you need to do more general exercises with your hands and arms, and ideally your whole body. I used to have serious problems with my wrist (raquetball injury, problem came back for twelve years despite three operations to fix) which totally cleared up thanks to the thrice-weekly warm-up exercises my tai chi teacher uses. His exercises also cleared up my RSI from being at a computer all day, and back pains I had.

First exercise the fingers (actually our tai chi warm-up begins with the toes and moves up through the legs, then waist, then hands & arms): arms held out horizontally to the front, close hands then flick the fingers open a few times, maybe eight times, whatever feels comfortable; don't overdo it.
Now work up the arm moving the joints in eight directions, starting with the wrists, then the elbows, then the shoulders.

Again/still holding arms out horizontally bend the wrists to the cardinal directions so the hands point up then down, then right and left; repeat four times. Now move hands to the ordinal directions up-and-right, down-and-left, up-and-left, down-and-right. Next move the hands in circles through the same positions, clockwise four times then anticlockwise four times. Finally, keeping arms extended, shake the hands so they're "flopping" at the wrist, up & down for a while then side to side.

The rest of the exercises are harder to describe so I'll leave those for now, but strengthening & loosening your limbs will help immensely with your carving.
posted by anadem at 10:49 AM on November 20 [13 favorites]

The steroid shots never work for long, though two days is crazy short. They don't really do anything to heal you, either.

You've got a few options:
Do it less (so there's less injury)
Do it better/differently (so you are using your muscles in a different way)
Exercise/strengthen those muscles (like what anadem suggest above)

Undoubtedly lots of folks who do this activity have had this problem. They might have YouTube videos. But you need to figure out a way to strengthen and stretch your hands and forearms so you build up all those little tiny muscles. You might be able to figure this out on your own, but I bet you can find some forum somewhere where other folks are dealing with this too. I also think figuring out another approach (beginners don't always have the best, most sustainable technique) could help too.

Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 11:12 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]

Is there a point at which an injury like this means I have to abandon the thing that led to it?


I don't know if you're at that point, and for some people exercises and ergonomics can help avoid or delay it. But yes, sometimes you do actually have to give up activities when doing them is consistently bad for your body. And sometimes it's better to stop sooner rather than later.

I'm sorry - it truly sucks.
posted by trig at 11:28 AM on November 20 [2 favorites]

Friend of mine got de Quervain's from atypical heavy lifting at work and it's been over a year now, 8 months into treatment, with the last month or two finally mostly better. That's been NSAIDs mostly, but the real improvement came with physiotherapy and doing the exercises regularly. It's a beast of an injury.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:52 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]

A physical therapist who specializes in hand/wrist injuries can help you with this!
posted by radioamy at 12:13 PM on November 20 [2 favorites]

The doctor who did the cortisone shot jokily said as much, though he did not suggest giving up carving, merely marveled at how much fluid there was in the pad below my thumb where I'd been gripping blocks of wood.

This, together with your "very, very clicky" thumb, makes it sound like the little bag which surrounds the joint at the base of your thumb and contains the lubricating synovial fluid (the bursa) has developed a serious leak, and the leaked fluid is collecting under the skin over the thumb pad.

I had a very similar problem a couple of years ago with an ankle that had to be surgically repaired after a climbing accident thirty years before.

People with very flexible joints have such leaks more often, at least partly because their bursae are also more extensible and can get trapped under tendons and pulled or abraded open.

My ankle healed up spontaneously, but a double jointed friend of mine with the same problem in one knee needed surgery to fix it.
posted by jamjam at 1:04 PM on November 20

I saw an occupational therapist for hand pain caused by typing. She gave me lots of exercises and recommended a hand brace. I still wear the brace, but I don’t have much pain now. A specialist like that can consider the specific work you do and make suggestions.

I also met a violist who was helped so much with her hand pain by the Feldenkrais method that she became a practitioner.
posted by FencingGal at 6:56 PM on November 20

Something that might make carving not as hard on your hands: Ryobi makes an electric carving knife. I've used this for woodcuts for printmaking... might be helpful for 3d projects as well. I hope you find a good solution!
posted by Sublimity at 7:28 PM on November 20

"where I'd been gripping blocks of wood" suggests to me, do you have to grip those blocks of wood? Could they be held in place with bench dogs or at least stopped against the main force vector of the carving tool?

I don't know anything about the symptoms you're experiencing, but from the direction of woodcarving -- are you left-handed or right-handed? Are you using either hand to stabilize your workpiece, or are both on the handle of the tool, or are you using a mallet? Are you using gouges and flat chisels, or some other type of tool such as a side-cutting knife? These are not actually questions for you to answer to me, but if you think through what work your left wrist and thumb seem to be doing through your carving, you might find some ways to let them do less.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:51 AM on November 21 [2 favorites]

I really cannot recommend hand and wrist exercises enough (and a PT if you can afford one). I used to have crippling hand pain--where I could not do anything but sit there with my hands in my lap feeling sorry for myself--and while they still hurt a bit after heavy use, the exercises have dramatically improved my pain and my ability to do stuff.
posted by the liquid oxygen at 2:44 AM on November 21

I had de Quervain’s and got surgery for it 10 years ago. I now currently have trigger thumb in the same hand. Plus an occult ganglion cyst in the same wrist. Guess I’m just lucky?

I went to a hand doctor at the local orthopedic clinic when the thumb first became an issue a few months ago. He immediate gave me a cortisone shot, not a PT referral like some other commenters have suggested. After the shot, it burned for a few hours, then hurt like absolute hell for a few days, then it all faded and the thumb was miraculously better.

I had a second shot into a different part of the wrist a week later, before we’d identified that problem as a cyst, and that shot was in the wrong place anyway because I’m stupid and can’t accurately identify which spot hurts the most. It did absolutely nothing. No burning, no residual pain. It was like it never happened. So that makes me wonder about your experience with your shot.

(My trigger thumb has come back in the last week or two, but I had a few months of solid hobby-ing since the first shot. The hand doctor had originally said it had a good chance of not coming back at all after one or two shots, but he recommends surgery if it comes back after that. I definitely intend to go get shot #2 once my area gets out of COVID code red. If it comes back again, I’ll strongly consider surgery — my dQ surgery was amazingly effective and I regret not doing it sooner.)

I don’t have a ton of advice for your specific issues, although I am concerned about your shot experience being different from mine. But I would encourage you to keep seeking medical attention.
posted by liet at 2:47 PM on November 21

> where I'd been gripping blocks of wood.

This seems like it's partly a workholding problem.

Try making something that holds the wood for you, then use razor sharp two handed chisels and palm chisels instead of whittling knives.

https://thecraftersbox.com/product/2018-12_materialskit_benchhook/ (note that the back wall of this could higher, from a 2"x6" or or 4"x4" or something, and you could use a sandbag in there as well.)





If you have something hacked up but robust holding your workpiece, that's going to take the pressure off the hand that was gripping the wood.

Even just a panavise might do it.


> I think I've asked about various parts of this before.


I'm still fretting that using a palm chisel and two handed push chisels and keeping the wrist straight will also prevent incipient carpal tunnel stuff, whereas gripping a whittling knife and swiveling your hand around may bring about carpal tunnel injuries. Which could be debilitating, in the carving hand, not just the gripping hand.

I don't have the right experience to say, but considering what happened with the wood-gripping hand, you probably need to be more careful with the knife-gripping hand.


If it's still no good, if you're interested in working in additive modeling materials, you can do amazing work in paper clay.

If the paper clay isn't interesting, this oil clay is almost a sensual treat to work in, like using the right pencil on nice paper. It softens up with heat, which would make it easier on your hands. It does not have the character of wood, so it isn't a substitute if your art practice is tied to the wood.

Note that for oil clay you would eventually have to make rubber molds to do up your art piece in a stable medium.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:22 AM on November 22

Basically the only real therapies for a trigger finger are cortisone and surgery, because the tendon has developed a little knot that cannot pass through the "pulley" that keeps it anchored. However, it sounds like you have some other things going on like maybe some arthritis or bursitis as well.

Occupational therapy is probably a good idea, not only for therapeutic exercises but because those folks are highly trained to recommend workarounds and assistive devices to help you do things you need to do without further aggravating your condition.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 11:28 AM on November 22

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