Knitting Comfortably: Simple Stretches
If I had a nickel for every time someone has told me they ignored their discomfort and now they have an injury, I’d be a wealthy knitter. Ignoring physical discomfort while you’re knitting is like sleeping through a fire alarm because the bed is warm and cozy. Musculoskeletal discomfort indicates that tissue is being overloaded by some external force. Discomfort is a warning that a problem exists, so you can respond to it before it becomes an injury.
Why do we tolerate discomfort when we’re knitting? My theory is that knitting brings us emotional, intellectual, even psychological comfort, that outweighs physical discomfort, and so we tune it out. Or maybe we’re just high on yarn fumes?
Common Knitting Aches and How to Avoid Them
I’m going to focus on a few body parts, describing common causes of discomfort and offering preventive measures you can take to avoid or alleviate discomfort. Please note: If you are past the point of mild discomfort, or if pain increases and spreads after a week or so, you should seek help from your physician or care provider. My suggestions below are not intended to be diagnostic or prescriptive.
Let’s start at the top.
Neck discomfort is a common complaint among knitters and fortunately, one of the easiest to prevent. It’s often the result of neck flexion (looking downward) or rotation (looking off to the side). Using digital devices like smart phones, keyboards, etc. increase our exposure to this risk.
When knitting, avoid the head-down posture whenever possible. You may be thinking, “How can I knit if I don’t look down?” Answer, “Practice!” I’m not saying you should never watch your hands knitting, but you probably watch them more than needed. Practice making garter stitch with waste yarn without looking at your hands. Give yourself the freedom to let stitches drop, split or whatever they do—and don’t fix them! Practice listening to your hands.
Sometimes we maintain a head-down posture because the needles and yarn are too slippery for each other and we fear dropping a stitch. Sometimes the needles and yarn are too close in color value for your eye to perceive where one ends and the other begins, so it’s easier to just keep your head down. Pairing yarn and needles appropriately is the single most important decision you’ll make in your knitting project because it determines posture, grip, force—you name it.
Look down when you need to: decreasing, increasing, crossing cables, or other fancy maneuvers that require visual attention. Apply force to your neck very judiciously because it impacts comfort throughout your entire body.
Next stop, shoulders.
Anterior (forward) shoulder discomfort is usually caused by holding your work in front of you as you knit—a posture that requires constant static muscular contraction. The neutral landmark for your shoulders positions your elbows at your side. If placing your arms in this position makes it difficult to see your work when you need to, try placing a cushion on your lap to support your arms with restful shoulders. The key is relaxing the muscles that hold your arms in front of you.
Another common shoulder complaint is soreness along the inner edge of the scapula (shoulder blade) and tightness at the top of the shoulder. Inner scapular discomfort is often the consequence of holding your arms in front of you. These muscles fatigue from supporting and stabilizing your shoulder while your arms are in front of you. Putting elbows at your side or on a cushion can help. You can work in a few shoulder squeezes at the end of a row or pattern repeat to help strengthen these overly stretched muscles.
Shoulder muscles get stretched when you hold work in front of you. Squeeze shoulder blades together and hold for a count of 5 at the end of a row or round.
From the elbow down.
Elbow discomfort is often related to repetitive stress while tensioning yarn. Fixing yarn tension is a worthwhile challenge, but in the short term frequent gentle stretching of these muscles and mindful attention to avoiding wrist extension in other activities (like using digital devices) also help.
Top: Hold arms in front, tuck thumbs inside soft fists. Bottom: Gently flex fists downward to feel stretch on top of forearm.
Rotate fists outward to feel full stretch of forearm and wrist.
The two most common reasons I’ve seen for discomfort in the fingers and wrists: using straight needles—especially with a heavy project; and keeping a forceful grip on the needles. Using circular needles or dpns to knit larger, heavier projects is an easy way to avoid or lessen discomfort. Using optimal yarn tensioning techniques is the best long-term solution. But in the meantime, switching to circs and gentle stretching can help.
Top: Arm straight in front; make a “stop” sign; gently stretch hand and fingers back toward you. Bottom: Rotate hand outward so fingers face toward the floor; continue to stretch hand and fingers back toward you for a deeper stretch.
Let’s close with a look at the carpal tunnel. There is lots of traffic traveling through this very confined space including finger flexor tendons and a nerve. The problem is that when the space gets too crowded the nerve gets compressed causing pain, numbness and tingling.
Since many of the stitches we make today cannot be done with a neutral wrist, working with a neutral wrist while doing non-knitting activities—like when you’re at your keyboard—helps a lot to reduce overall carpal tunnel stress.
Shortening the working yarn and remaining mindful of staying as neutral as possible can help.
Try a mindfulness marker—rest your wrist straight on the table, then put a piece of scotch tape across the joint. Now when you extend your wrist you’ll feel the tape buckle and you’ll be reminded to avoid that posture. (See my article on posture here.)
Micro-breaks are important and helpful. Use your mindfulness marker as a prompt to stop and rest your hands. Gentle arm swings helps improve circulation to the nerve and tendons. Try the tendon glide below to help the tendons slide through their full range of motion.
Start with an open hand. Touch the fingertips to the top of your palm, Touch the fingertips to the bottom of the palm. Make a gentle closed fist. Then open your hand.
Finally, avoid compression at the wrist: do not rest your wrists on the edge of a table, laptop, etc. Be very mindful of this at your PC and laptop. When a knitter is resting their wrists on a surface it usually means they are tired and ready for a break. Don’t you dare say, “One more row!”
Listen to your body and respond to its message. It’s very smart!