The human body is truly an amazing pottery-making machine! So many things work in perfect harmony, healthy and pain-free most of the time. But things can go awry; systems and parts can be abused or overworked. We potters know that ceramics is a labor-centered art, so we just work continuously, or as the clay demands. This endless labor has its effects on our bodies and our ability to continue working.
Age and stress eventually come upon us all; our bodies begin to deteriorate and take longer to heal. As we age, we gradually realize that we can't work ten- to twelve-hour days anymore. Our stamina decreases and bodily stresses increase. After one extremely busy Christmas season, I sustained a stressed right knee, right arm tennis elbow, and a pinched sciatic nerve. I was hitting middle age (in my forties) and just overworked. It was time to face my body full-on, get treatment, and work toward minimizing these injuries in the future. I found acupuncture very effective for my knee and elbow; walking helped to alleviate the pinched sciatic nerve. This was that proverbial wake-up call- the one that says that you must face the fact that you are getting older (need more rest) and must take time to keep your body fit (mild aerobic exercise that includes a lot of movement and stretching).
During the production segment of your work, machines such as pug mills, slab rollers, and extruders can help to ease the bodily strain on wrists, shoulders, and back. Arranging your studio into a better-organized space can help reduce movement stresses. To further reduce your risk of injury, plan ahead and think through your actions if you will be lifting, carrying, or moving substantial weight and causing extraneous exertion. These suggestions (and those later in this article) may seem like general knowledge, but hopefully they will remind you to consciously realize your limitations and take preemptive action.
Wheel-throwing is a major example of the intense stress potters place on their bodies. The use of isometric force is critical to centering, pulling, and shaping the clay. Holding a static position is an important part of throwing, and the most stressful. In limiting your motion, you constrict your muscles and tendons. A potter who does a lot of throwing can easily develop overuse injuries, especially to the upper body and wrists. Additional stress can be related to lifting, overextension, or any repetitive-motion activity in the ceramic studio. Ultimately, you must look at how your body is reacting and feeling. If you work long hours in a clay studio, you should prepare yourself, maintain yourself, and take care of yourself. Most important, understand your body.
What are some ways to avoid these bodily stresses that result from making ceramicware? One of the most important is to exercise and build strength so that when you begin that relentless schedule of pottery production, you have the stamina to see yourself through with a minimum of pain or injury. If you have not exercised for a while, you may want to consult with a doctor or work with a physical trainer to obtain a workout routine. Begin slowly. It is best to follow guidelines of frequency, intensity, and duration when exercising. Swimming and walking are types of exercise that can help the potter achieve cardiovascular health and promote a feeling of physical and mental well-being. Contrary to popular belief, aerobic exercise does not have to be difficult or painful to achieve benefits.
In addition, weight training should be incorporated into a fitness program to promote strong muscles and stable joints. Core training is currently very popular, and strong core muscles can not only alleviate back pain but also prevent injuries. Core strength refers to the ability of the muscles of the abdomen, back, and side to contract against a submaximal force; this usually translates into using one's own body weight against the force of gravity. The core muscles are your lower and upper abdominals, lower-and middle-back muscles, and the oblique muscles on the side of your torso. These can be thought of as a band, located three to five inches above and below the navel, that wraps around your entire torso. Strong core muscles help the potter to remain upright while sitting at the wheel for many hours without incurring back injury or pain. They also enable pain free bending, lifting, and carrying of heavy objects.
Flexibility exercises are also important for the potter to maintain full range of motion in the joints most used when working. Stretching all the major joints in the body a minimum of twice a week is a good practice to follow. Hamstring, hip, shoulder, and arm stretches are necessary to maintain range of motion and joint health. Exercises for the prevention and rehabilitation of lower-back pain are described in most standard books on stretching and back health.
Many Eastern practices can be beneficial for potters. Yoga can improve strength and flexibility. Tai chi and qigong are becoming increasingly popular. Cis Hager, a long-time tai chi practitioner and teacher in St. Louis, said to me, "Taiji (tai chi) is a 3-D art, like clay. The gong in qigong means 'accomplishment through persistence.' You are good at clay because you have practiced it for so many years. If you had been practicing taiji all that time too, it is possible that your body would be happier."
The techniques used to avoid stress can also help you recover if you have an injury and need to alleviate pain and damage. Yoga, tai chi, strength training, stretching, and taking breaks can all help after an injury has occurred. If you have serious pain or injury, seek medical or professional help. Pain is always an indication of something abnormal. If you take care of the stressed area quickly, recovery may be faster.
There are several generally accepted, therapeutic approaches to joint and muscle pain. Rest is always one of the best noninvasive remedies. Sports trainers at many schools say that one should apply ice first, for about twenty minutes, to reduce inflammation. Heat should be applied twenty-four to forty-eight hours later to bring blood to the area for healing. Alternative treatments can help as well. Over the past twenty years I have gotten regular massage and shiatsu treatments with good results (many times trading pottery for therapy). These therapists all tell me that relief cannot happen overnight. It took years of labor-intensive pottery making to overstress your body, and it will take time to repair the damage.
Another way to reduce inflammation and pain in stressed areas is to have a cortisone injection from an orthopedic doctor. According to one website (http://medicinenet.com/cortisone-injection) cortisone is used to "reduce inflammation powerfully." Injections can provide months to years of relief when used properly. However, cortisone shots are controversial. Some medical sources say that cortisone and other steroids can suppress your body's ability to express a normal response to something wrong. The cortisone may make the pain go away, but with continued use of the affected joint during the pain-reduced state, damage can reappear. I have had continued pain in my right elbow for years. I have had three cortisone injections over two years, and the pain always seems to return after about six months. I have tried a holistic approach incorporating cortisone, physical therapy, exercise, and a good amount of rest for the affected area. So far, pain keeps emerging.
Eventually, surgery may be necessary (see "To Sciatica and Back: A Potter's Journey," by John Glick)1. Recovery from surgery or arthroscopy involving any major joint will be slow and gradual. You should return to your normal activities safely and comfortably. For radical shoulder, hip, or back surgery, it may take from three to six months to completely heal. Physical therapy should be an important part of your recovery. A physical therapist can show you stretches and strengthening exercises and assist you in beginning a program that is tailored to your particular injury and physical needs as a potter.
As you recover from your injuries, it would be wise to begin a comprehensive exercise program to keep pain and injury from returning. At least three days of exercise each week at a moderate intensity, for a minimum of 20 minutes, is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. Many activities qualify as cardiovascular, or aerobic, exercise. They are designated either low-impact or high-impact, referring to the impact force to the body. Low-impact activities include swimming, walking, and stretching. If you choose a high-impact activity, be sure you have proper shoes and exercise on a soft surface, such as grass or a track. It may be desirable to alternate high-impact activities, such as running or jogging, with low-impact exercises such as walking or swimming in your weekly exercise sessions. This is called cross-training, and it can help to prevent injuries, as well as boredom. Potters with orthopedic problems as well as knee, hip, or back pain should choose low-impact activities. The key to exercising safely is to do everything in moderation so that you will be able to continue your program for your entire life. Begin with a safe and enjoyable program and progress gradually to increase your chances of adherence and to prevent injuries.
Constant, uninterrupted work, physical stress, and tension can have an adverse effect on a potter's physical and mental well-being. A balance is necessary for good physical and mental health. Potters need to be aware of the stresses imposed on their bodies. Try to plan health-promoting activities into your schedule. An example might be: begin your work day with a brisk twenty-minute walk followed by stretching exercises; throw fifty mugs, take a break, make twenty bowls, have lunch, put handles on the mugs, take a break to stretch, prepare the kiln, make a glaze, and finally indulge in an end-of-day stretch and relaxation period.
Potters should be mindful of maintaining good posture, of using leverage, and of stopping for needed rest. A holistic approach means preparing your body for the incredible stress you put on it daily in the studio. Plan ahead for daily healing. This type of conscious approach to physical and mental well-being will not keep away all pain and injury, but it will hopefully help you to achieve a long career in ceramics with a minimal amount of stress and wear and tear.