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As potters, we subject our hands to a good deal of abuse. Prolonged handling of clay and loading kilns, seems to just suck the moisture right out of my hands, sometimes to the point of being quite painful, especially if a crack develops. If your hands are out of commission, you can’t make pots. I thought I would share some of the things I personally like to use to help maintain and protect my hands and fingers.

I have tried many kinds of hand creams to keep my hands from drying out and cracking over the years, but not very many actually penetrate the skin or do much good. The two ones I’ve had the best luck with are Corn Huskers Lotion and Bee Balm Lotion (BeeBalm is actually my favorite). Both can be bought at my local pharmacy, and the Bee Balm can even be bought through at least one of my pottery suppliers.

Its also unavoidable sometimes to get abrasions, cuts, scratches, hangnails, etc.. While an adhesive bandage works great under normal conditions to protect and keep a cut clean, it has a tendency to just be cumbersome and usually won’t hold up or even stay on after a few minutes of throwing, let alone continue to keep bacteria out once it gets wet. And clay has bacteria.

Several years ago I was reading about a new product on the market called New Skin. It was a new kind of waterproof, flexible liquid bandage that you could just brush on like nail polish. As soon as I tried it, I was sold. While I don’t think its recommended for big deep cuts, it seems to work great on scratches, minor cuts, etc., and is quite unobtrusive.

I also found these handy dandy little First Aid Cots in the bandage section of the pharmacy, right by the New Skin, bandaids, etc… They roll on like little finger condoms and can even go over a bandage, keeping your digit dry and clean. Much more localized coverage than a latex glove, although just as effective. They work great.

I also like to keep some little nail clippers at hand and around the wheel. They’re handy for trimming bits off fast-growing nails when they get too long and start to gouge the clay, and are perfect for nipping off hangnails before they get out of hand.

Making pots is very physically demanding. Tasks range from lifting heavy bags of ingredients & clay, bending and straining to load and unload kilns, and repetitive movements that can lead to overuse injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Potters need to think ahead and work smart to make sure their bodies can hold up as long as their love for clay does.

Sometimes, though, illnesses and injuries happen no matter how careful one might be. Two of Canadian potter friends of mine haven’t been so lucky when it comes to their health. One has quite serious back problems and has had surgery, but problems persist. My other friend has had epilepsy for years but recently, she has been coping with some pretty serious unforeseen complications relating to her condition. Both friends sought the help of an occupational therapist (O.T.) in hopes that they might help them continue to pot.

In this sort of situation, the Occupational Therapist comes to the workplace, observes the working environment, the working habits, and the tasks that need completing, then makes an assessment and suggests a plan of action.

The occupational therapist recommended to my friend with the back problems, working at the wheel from the standing position. Due to another pre-existing condition, she was not going to be able to be on her feet for any extensive period of time, so the OT worked with her and together, they designed a special “stool”, built specifically to her physical proportions. It wasn’t meant to sit at per se, but it was contoured in such a way that she could take some of the weight off of her legs/feet while still throwing standing up. (Sorry, unfortunately I don’t have a picture.) The other recommendation was that she take on a partner or assistant who would do tasks such as loading the kilns and other such tasks. This worked out quite well for her.

My friend with epilepsy had suffered some major set-backs due to some related neurological conditions, resulting in problems with balance, vision, fine motor skills, hearing, and increased frequency of seizures. Tasks such as throwing, manipulating a brush, and pulling handles were becoming increasingly difficult and sometimes even invoked seizures. A couple of the suggestions that she successfully implemented for working at the wheel were wearing an eye patch while throwing, and throwing with the help of a mirror (no more leaning over). Put simplistically, since her seizures were invoked by certain visual stimuli and physical movements, changing her visual perspective (covering one eye and using the mirror) and way of working, has helped to retrain her brain (much like retraining the brain of a stroke victim) to use different neural pathways to complete specific tasks, including throwing, and work relatively seizure free. So far so good. She is back to throwing again and is doing her first show in as many years this weekend.

I really have to admire my two friends for having the gumption to find a way to keep making pots despite their debilitating conditions and for seeking help from an occupational therapist. I know how difficult it must have been for both of them, after so many years of potting, to have to adjust to new ways of working, but both have made the adjustment successfully and sing praises of their OTs.

My name is Anne Webb and I'm a studio potter living and working just outside of Magnolia Springs, on Alabama's beautiful Gulf Coast. Please leave comments!
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