Tips to prevent back and shoulder pains in photographers

Photographers carrying lots of gear get neck and shoulder painsBack pain, neck pain, shoulder and arm pain are common in photographers. Unlike many other pursuits photography pains are not confined to those of us who dabble occasionally with their SLR and who are therefore ‘unfit’ with the crouching postures, running for shots or even just the transporting of the camera. Indeed, as you progress and gain experience you start to add to your collection of equipment and before you know it you are carrying around your Canon or Nikon emblazoned shoulder bag with several lenses and paraphernalia inside as well as a tripod under the other arm, and possibly even an additional, ‘old trusty’ camera ready for those faithful shots. Before long you are lugging around half the baggage allowance on a commercial flight. And if you are amongst the breed of wedding photographers….well you will need all sorts in that bag of yours.

Here are a few tips for you to get you through your days with your SLR; whether they are long or short ones.

Neck pain

Most of us get neck tightness at some point in our lives, but carrying heavy camera equipment around your neck, which can often amount to upwards of 3kg is only likely to exacerbate that. As a well known wedding photographer Steve George (www.stevegeorgephotography.co.uk) said “If you were given a 2.5kg dumbell on a strap and told to wear it around your neck all day you’d run a mile and you should do the same if it’s a camera really. It’s the weight that’s the critical thing, not the context of what it is causing the weight.”

Add to that standing in freezing weather for long periods of time or later sitting in front of Photoshop for hours will then only add to further muscle tightness and resulting neck and back issues, risking longer term damage. As this progresses it can cause an ‘anterior head carriage’ where the head becomes stooped forwards. This may lead to imbalanced and tight shoulder muscles as well as restrictions in the lower neck. Long term effects of this can include stiffness, further tight shoulders, headaches, and even pain into the arms.

Changing your equipment is not usually an option but altering how it is transported is. Avoiding carrying the camera around your neck for long periods of time is the step to a happy spine. Many photographers use hand straps to simply carry the camera by hand or else opt for sling systems to carry the weight of the camera across the shoulders, such as the Luma Loop Camera Sling or the Seattle Sling Bag.

However, if you do already suffer from an aching neck or tight shoulders then it is a good idea to get it checked out by a chiropractor. Sundial Clinics (www.sundialclinics.co.uk) will offer free, no obligation spinal checks, and it is a good idea to take full advantage of this service. We will be able to assess your spine and ensure that any ‘niggles’ are not a concern. If they are then we can tell you how to correct them and make lasting changes that will ensure a pain-free and stronger experience behind the camera as well as in the rest of your daily activities.

Regular sports massage is also advisable for anyone who spends any length of time carrying items around. Doing a number of stretches before, during and / or after your photo shoots will also help to combat an accumulation of muscle tension and fatigue. If you experience any undue pain doing these exercises then stop and see a health professional.

Upper trapezius stretch

Standing with your left arm hanging down at your side and palm facing outwards, or sitting with the left hand underneath your bottom) bring your right ear down to the side towards your right shoulder. To increase the stretch use your right hand on top of your head and apply further pressure. Hold for 20-30 seconds then repeat on the other side.

Shoulder stretch

Standing with your left arm hanging down as before, or sitting with it underneath your bottom, look towards your right armpit and use your right hand on top of your head to apply pressure into the stretch in the direction of the armpit. Hold for 20-30 seconds then repeat on the other side.

Chest stretch

Standing alongside a wall, raise your right arm up with a bent elbow and place it at chest height against the wall so that the arm forms a 90 degree angle at the elbow with the arm pointing upwards. Keeping your arm in place, slowly turn your body away from the wall until you feel a stretch through the chest. Hold for 20-30 seconds then return to the starting position and repeat with the arm in lower and higher positions. Then repeat on the other side.

This can be carried out faster using a doorway with both arms against the inside of the door frame. Keeping the arms at the same 90 degree angle, step through the doorway, leaving the arms behind until you feel a stretch through the chest. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Again, repeat with the arms in different positions.

Thoracic stretch

Although the yoga cat stretch is probably one of the best forms of stretching for the spine it is unlikely that you will be inane rush to drop to your knees in front of a party of curious wedding guests and their canapés.

So the best alternative is to find a quiet corner to stand and crossing both hands over at the wrists and clasping them so that the backs of the hands face outwards. Slowly straighten the arms and draw them forwards in front of you with your head lowered. Keep the pressure pulling forwards until you can feel the stretch in the middle of your back. Hold for 20-30 seconds.

Lower back

Ah, the dreaded lower back and all its woes. It goes without saying that a professional photographer’s life will always involve a great deal of standing around and any ‘gentle exercise’ will be accompanied by lugging of heavy equipment to set up in various locations. And even if most of it is left in the car until needed it still has to be hauled out of there, which creates its own stresses on the back as it is rare to be able to lift it out at anything other than an awkward angle.

Despite the research on load distribution favouring two strap rucksacks to avoid postural shifts and resulting back pain 1,2 using a rucksack to transport your cameras and gear does not amount to easy access to the equipment and so is not always a practical option, particularly for wedding photography.

For carrying all the equipment many professional photographers therefore use belt systems, such as those from Lowepro, Kinesis and Thinktank, but care should be exercised to ensure that the belt fits correctly and doesn’t swing around too much when worn. You should also try not to load it too much and end up walking like John Wayne – or his horse as this can create torsional or twisting forces through the pelvis and lumbar spine and cause significant damage.

Of course, the most efficient path to spinal strength and stability will most notably come in the form of Pilates exercises and training and finding classes in your area may well have a phenomenal impact not only on the strength of your back but your general fitness and posture too. By training and strengthening your core muscles you enable your body to carry not only your own body weight more efficiently but also additional loads, without such a fear of injury.

A few key lower back exercises which can be carried out at the start or end of the day or several times throughout it as needed:

Trunk rotation

Standing with your feet hip width apart, cross your arms across your chest and, from the waist, slowly twist to the left keeping your hips facing forwards. Hold for 10 seconds then return to the starting position and repeat for the right side.

Toe touches

Standing with feet hip width apart, inhale and then slowly exhale, gently bending at the hips and lowering to the floor to touch it as far as possible with your fingertips. Stop when you feel a stretch through your hamstrings and lower back. Hold for 20 seconds then slowly return to the starting position.

Wall Roll

Standing against a wall with your knees bent, allow yourself to droop like a rag doll from your head downwards and allow your spine to slowly fold down away from the wall. Continue until you are hanging down to the floor. Allow yourself to remain there for a few seconds then slowly rise up again in the same, slow manner as you lowered.

Lateral flexion

Sitting upright, inhale and raise your left hand straight up in the air. Gently exhaling, bend over to the right until you can feel a stretch on the left side. Hold for 20 seconds then gently return to the starting position and repeat on the left side.

Standing cat stretch

Standing with your knees bent and your hands resting just above them, tighten your stomach muscles and round your back upwards. Hold for 20 seconds then allow your back to dip downwards. Repeat as many times as needed.

Keeping your back free of tension throughout the day is the best way to avoid an accumulation of aches and pains and to ensure that you keep your mind off your back and on what is on the other side of the camera.

So bullet points to remember…

  • Whether you pick up your camera occasionally or as a profession you will be unlikely to avoid physical stresses and aches.
  • Try to avoid using the camera neck strap for long periods at a time as it will put imense strain through your neck.
  • Try to take regular breaks throughout the day and use them to stretch your whole body.
  • If you regularly carry large amounts of equipment consider transporting it using a sling system or belt.
  • If keeping equipment in the car take care when lifting it out each time.
  • Never ignore existing or developing physical pains as even if they do not worsen they are likely to result in compensations and further problems.
  • Consider incorporating Pilates and sports massage into your free time to help to keep you “fit” for your photography passion as well as life.
References

1. Korovessis. P; Koureas. G; Zacharatos.S& Papazisis.Z. (2005). Backpacks, Back Pain, Sagittal Spinal Curves and Trunk Alignment in Adolescents: A Logistic and Multinomial Logistic Analysis. Spine.Vol.15. No.2.pp.247-255.

2. Macias, B.R; Murthy, G; Chambers, H; & Hargens, A. R. (2008) Asymmetric Loads and Pain Associated With Backpack Carrying by Children. Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics. Vol.28. No.5. pp.512-517.


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