Hunter's Habits for Healthy Hands

Woman making peace sign in front of her face.

The information that follows is not meant to diagnose or treat specific medical issues regarding the hands but rather is a list of habits that have kept me healthy and able to continue doing the things I love with either greatly reduced or no pain. I am not a doctor. Proceed with caution and common sense.

I grew up playing video games. Many, many hours were spent leveling up, collecting every collectible, wringing every last hour I could out of each game I got ahold of. When I got to high school, I started getting interested in music. First was the drums, then piano, and finally the guitar. My first career was as a guitar teacher. I would play guitar and teach throughout the day, then unwind by playing video games in the evening. Then I started learning to build websites and write code. I eventually shifted careers into web development, got back to playing guitar strictly for fun, and continued to play video games when I made the time. This is when things started to fall apart.

With the exception of time spent walking, running, or sleeping, I was using my hands all day long. Even while watching television, I’d have my guitar in my hands running exercises over and over. Without giving myself regular breaks, my hands began hurting and it became difficult to continue doing the things I wanted and needed to do in my life. I saw a hand specialist who suggested I either wear braces all the time or stop doing certain activities. Neither of these was really an option. I needed to figure out how to continue to do the things I enjoyed doing without hurting myself.

Below are 4 habits I’ve formed in the years since my pain was at its worst that have allowed me to work a full-time computer job, practice guitar daily for upwards of two hours, and play video games as long as I’d like with little or no pain.

Habit #1: Stretch

I’ll start with the habit that has brought me the most benefit, which is stretching. I begin every single day, even non-working days, by going through a specific series of stretches that takes about 5 minutes to do. After seeing that doctor, buying books on hand problems, reading many articles, and wearing hand braces, I stumbled upon a video on YouTube from a man who’d had even more serious hand pain than I did. His short video details his experience and demonstrates the series of stretches that were recommended to him by a physical therapist. To his series of stretches, I’ve added a standing side bend because it just feels good.

I can’t overly stress just how important this routine has been to my hand health. I strongly suggest you give it a go.

Habit #2: Move

The advent of activity trackers and the proliferation of standing desks reveals that keeping your body moving throughout the day is becoming a priority for many people. My doctor suggested I stop doing the activities that were causing me pain. Instead, I’ve made an effort to do the activities that were causing me pain for shorter stretches of time. If you’re working at a computer for 8 hours a day, that’s fine so long as you take breaks frequently and change things up just as often.

For me this means using my laptop with an external monitor at my desk, both sitting and standing, or sitting on a cushion on the floor with the laptop on a low stool, or using the laptop on the kitchen table. Variety is an important part of this, not the individual tools. I personally don’t like external keyboards and mice. The way my Mac is laid out is the most comfortable for me. But I can still become fatigued if I stay long enough in the same position. My watch reminds me to move each hour if I haven’t. A calendar alert or Pomodoro timer would work just as well. Don’t get too mired in the numbers or any kind of “system” if you don’t need to. Just move!

Habit #3: Move More

Habit #2 is all about changing up how you’re working throughout the day, but it’s important to take breaks from working entirely to give your hands a break and your body some exercise. This can take many forms. My go-tos are taking walks and meditating.

Walking is just plain wonderful. It gets all your limbs moving, it’s basically stress-free on your body, gets the heart rate up, and gets your mind working. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been banging my head against a problem for hours only to have the answer pop into my head once I was out walking. There’s something about stepping away from a problem for a while that allows one’s mind to process it more clearly. Even when I don’t come up with the actual solution to a problem, I invariably come up with at least something new to try.

Meditating is also just plain wonderful. Have a seat, close your eyes, focus your attention on your breathing, and try to relax tense parts of your face and body. Unlike walking, the goal here isn’t necessarily to have eureka moments. Quite the opposite; it’s to allow your mind to rest, improve your patience and focus, and allow you to think more clearly when you need to. The topic of meditation is worthy of an article of its own, but it’s easy enough to try it out now. You’ll be surprised at how much more productive (and happier) you can be after just a few minutes of “doing nothing.”

Habit #4: Strengthen

If you went through the stretches detailed in the video above you may have noticed that many of them stretch large muscles in the forearms, arms, and shoulders rather than the small muscles of the wrists and hands. You can think of the body as being structured much like a pyramid. Our large bones and muscles support successively smaller ones as our limbs extend out from the torso. When we perform fine motions with our fingers and hands repeatedly, we put undue stress on muscles that aren’t strong enough to handle them. The solution to this problem is to strengthen the larger muscles that support our hands going up our arms to provide a sturdier base for these more intricate motions.

Include exercises in your weekly routine that target your upper body, like pull-ups, push-ups, and kettlebell swings. It isn’t important to be able to do large numbers of repetitions, especially if you’re new to upper body workouts. Focus instead on getting the motion right and not doing too much. A little strength training goes a long way and for our purposes we’re looking only to build muscle, not to become a bodybuilder or fundamentally change our overall body composition.

Conclusion

Serious hand problems are serious and you should seek the help of a professional hand doctor and/or physical therapist to diagnose and treat your specific issue. But if you haven’t quite developed a serious condition and want to practice habits that will allow you to live a life free of hand pain, I highly recommend you give the ideas above a try. They cost only your time and time spent working to prevent injury and pain is always time well spent.

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Hunter MacDermut

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Staunch front-end developer, inveterate jazz guitar noodler, armchair critic of film, tv, and video games.