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Ouch! Sewing is Hurting My Back

lbjhanna's picture

Hi Everyone, I'm new to the group and need some help. I love to sew and quilt but am have a painful back problem and am discovering that sewing is not helping it. I don't know what I would do if I can't sew/quilt anymore. Has anyone out there have any solutions?

starzoe's picture

(post #23992, reply #1 of 46)

I can sympathize with you on the back problem. First of all, find out what is causing the problem and then do research of what exercises you need to avoid future problems. Sometimes such simple tactics as stretching, taking time to get up from the project to move around regularly, easy side-to-side neck stretching and finding the right chair will ease your back problems.

KharminJ's picture

(post #23992, reply #2 of 46)

Good Morning! and Welcome!

So sorry to hear of your back problems ~ the good news is that there are many "little things" that you can do to alter your sewing posture, which is probably what aggravates the pain.

Do you have any other chairs you can test drive? The height of the seat and the angle can make a big difference. Maybe adding a cushion ... maybe taking it away ...under your butt or behind your back (lumbar support) ...

Also, are you "carrying tension" in your shoulders? If you're working with your shoulders scrunched up around your ears (from pain, or "fear of" pain) you will have pain! (Ask me how I know!)

How long do you sit at one time? It's so easy to "get on a roll" and not realize how long it's been since one got up from a project - remember the constant "look up from the screen every ten or fifteen minutes" advice to office workers? Same idea!

I hope you find a combination of tweaks that help! I'm sure some of the retired nurses here (there's a bunch!) will have some ideas, too.

So, What kind of sewing do you love to do? This is the most supportive group I've run across - have fun!

Bright Blessings ~ Kharmin

ohiostar's picture

(post #23992, reply #3 of 46)

I have back problems that began with sewing and were aggravated by an active lifestyle. I have painful bone spurs in my mid back and neck. One thing that has helped a lot (besides a good fitting bra, chiro, and pain meds) is regular muscle exercises. I do strengthening exercises for the core muscle group, and for arms , shoulders, and deltoid muscles. It helps you to sit up straight and use the appropriate muscles to do the job they need to do. Can't recommend it enough.

Do take the time to find out exactly what you are doing to stress your back. Sewing is too much fun to give it up for back problems.


jann It is not about Patience or Perfection, but Persistence.
MaryinColorado's picture

(post #23992, reply #4 of 46)

Sorry to hear about your back problems, hope you have been evaluated by a good physician.  Pilates classes helped me alot, even though I am unable to progress past the beginner level. This was with physician approval!

I thought I had the perfectly organized sewing room...but it wasn't good for me.  I need to move around frequently to prevent pain, stiffness, and fatigue.  Now the scissors and rotary cutters are behind the door on the wall instead of beside the machines, for example.  "dis"organzing has helped immensly.

I set a timer so I don't sit in one position doing one activity more than 15 minutes.  I have ergonomic office chairs and change their location and seat height often.  Get up and walk or at least stretch on and off.  Used office supply stores save money, I got a tall drafting chair that raised up to barstool height that is great at the cutting/planning/ layout table rather than standing. 

The library may have the book Dream Sewing Spaces or another that tells of ergonomics in the sewing room.  It has improved my enjoyment and ability to create.

Learn to change your HABITS, that has helped me more than anything else.  Instead of being discouraged by what you cannot do, you become inspired by each thing you can do.

I work on several projects rather than having to complete one thing at a time.  It may take months to finish a quilt or weeks to finish a garment, but I can complete placemats or embellish readymade or make a doll much quicker.  That gives me a feeling of accomplishment and gradually changed my perception of loss because I couldn't produce as when I was healthier.  I don't do anything the same way I did in the past.  I may not "feel well enough" to work on one thing, so rather than be overwhelmed and avoid the sewing room, I have always got something that I CAN do. 

Small art quilts are wonderful, I leave them clamped to a rod so I can see them when I walk in the room.  Once the background fabric is done, I can gradually add an applique here, an embroidery there, beading another time.  Same with the dolls.  Mary

lbjhanna's picture

(post #23992, reply #5 of 46)

Thank you all for your great suggestions. And a BIG thank you to Mary for giving me permission to not have to finish one project before I go on to others. That's great advice that I'm going to put into practice immediately!!!

sewfar's picture

(post #23992, reply #6 of 46)

It is a small thing but the little pillow from Threads Quick to make that has a strap, weighted end and "rubber drawer liner" to keep it from migrating down the back of my chair has helped me. Seems to hit a good pressure point when I lean in to it and it's comforting to know it will be in the same spot when need it again.

Teaf5's picture

(post #23992, reply #7 of 46)

I agree with the others to first look at your chair, table height, and lighting as well as find out which "healthy back" suggestions your doctors may have.

For example, I prefer to sit perched on the edge of a stool rather than in a chair with arms. I also need the seat to be quite high because I'm tall, and I have to remind myself to use proper posture while working. A friend of mine stands at a podium-height table to do hand work, and we both have to be careful to take breaks and not stay in a single position too long.

Meg's picture

(post #23992, reply #8 of 46)

Several years ago (and on a quilting-related message board) someone posted a few suggestions. One is to push the machine back so that the needle is 12" from the front edge of the table. (I don't know how you'd accomplish this if your 'chine is set into the table, though.) I've tried this and really like it.

nikkisewz's picture

(post #23992, reply #9 of 46)


I too have had some back problems from sewing. A few years ago it started during a week-long marathon of making prom dresses for a photoshoot and hasn't seemed to stop since. The left side of my back actually goes numb after a little while of sewing, which is very odd.

I talked with a chiropractor relative and Kat Robinson of Sewing Yoga to get some advice.

The best advice is to take breaks and stretch. If you have to, set an alarm every 45 minutes so that you know to get up and stretch your back. Go get a glass of water and use those other muscles. Repetitive muscle use always causes problems.

Pushing your machine back on the table does help so that you are not looking straight down at the needle all the time.

Another trick is to use an exercise ball instead of a chair at the sewing table. When I started doing this it was awkward at first because I had to get my muscles used to it. However, after a bit of conditioning, I think it works better than the chair option.

Kat Robinson's Sewing Yoga DVD has a lot of great poses that will get your circulation going and stretch the muscles you use at the table. Other yoga programs work well, too, however I think Kat created her program with sewing problems in mind.


Nicole Smith * THREADS Editorial


Nicole Smith * THREADS Editorial

Cindy_Lynn's picture

(post #23992, reply #29 of 46)

My aunt, who is a retired nurse, is the one who introduced me to Kat Robinson's "Sewing Yoga'. I ended up buying the DVD and it is good! Recently, our sewing guild had a sewing retreat. We had the 'back issues' discussion on the first day, so I promised to bring the DVD with me the next day (as well as my laptop). About midmorning, we broke from our sewing projects and everyone grouped around my laptop and we watched it as we all did the techniques. Everyone felt much better afterwards and several took the information so they could buy their own copies. Kat was (maybe still is) a yoga instructor who just happens to love to sew, so she developed the routine on this DVD especially for herself and other sewers. I participated in an online seminar she held before I bought it myself.
Cindy Lynn

MarikaD's picture

(post #23992, reply #33 of 46)

A good hint that I picked up in a quilting class was - lift up the back of your chair by  about 2.5 to 3 inches, keep the front legs on the ground.  What this does is keeps your back straight, and your head at the right angle to see your sewing  (machine sewing).  We had plastic bucket chairs in the class and you could put one inside the other to achieve this.  At home I used bricks under a dining chair.

Also after 30 years and 3 back operations I learnt some exercises at the Queensland University - one for transversus abdominis and one for multifidus they are the muscles around your spine and at QU they discovered that when you have had back pain these muscles stop working.  Now all my back pain is virtually gone.

When I had young children I put an old fashioned timber playpen half under a table and had a chair in there as well - so Me and my presser foot were inside the playpen and little hands were kept at a distance.  Hope this helps someone.

Sancin's picture

(post #23992, reply #36 of 46)

Can you give us some idea what those exercises are like, Marika? I will have to get my anatomy book out and look up those muscles. Actually, I find most of my back pain is due to muscles spasms (pulling on diseased bones). I can actually feel lumps in my back muscles. A massage therapist helps, but the lumps and spasms keep coming back before the next appointment.

Aside - my cordless mouse died and as it worked with the cordless keyboard. On advice from my computer guy I bought separate cordless mouse and a corded keyboard. This is my first typing on it. Boy is it different than my old one!! We sure do get used to our 'things' don't we!

MarikaD's picture

(post #23992, reply #37 of 46)

The way my treatment was explained was that there are three separate muscles at the front of your spine and 3 at the back.  The ones  closest to your spine, the transversus abdominis and the multifidus (I can't remember which is at the front and which is at the back) are supposed to be each shaped like a staple (before it is used)- the two muscles sort of forming a square with a little space where they meet up.  Sort of like a corset.

When you have lower back pain these muscles stop working independently from the other muscles and they go into a straight muscle and work with the other two sets and you sort of feel weak and unsupported and the more normal "sit up like" exercises you do, the more your corset" thinks it  belongs to your flat tummy muscles.

The actual excercises that are taught by a physio are breathing exercises that teach the tranv.ab and multifidus to work independently of the other trunk muscles. At the uni I was assessed using EMG, pressure biofeedback and ultrasound imaging to see if the trans. ab and multifidus could work. This was when they were doing trials regarding back pain in 1997.    From being in bed half of the day  I went back to work and driving and sewing. Hope this is helpful,  Marika

sewfar's picture

(post #23992, reply #38 of 46)

I just watched this video from AARP on line and and I think it may be very helpful to us plus it looks like the type of simple motions I can and will do. Love any exercise that does not involve the floor!

Gloriasews's picture

(post #23992, reply #39 of 46)

Thanks for the link, Sewfar.  These exercises are easy enough, too.  I would think that the leg crossover one could be done on a firm bed, rather than the floor, for those of us who have trouble getting down there & even more trouble getting back up :).

MarieCurie's picture

(post #23992, reply #30 of 46)

Every time I hear folks give advice of taking breaks from sewing every 45 minutes I have to laugh.  I have small children, and I can count on one hand the number of times I've had the opportunity to sew for 30 whole minutes in a row!

That being said, I also agree with the imortance of ergonomics.  I've permanently shreaded a nerve in my right shoulder from using the dining room table as my cutting surface.  You should think of the kitchen counter as closer to the correct height--the kitchen island if you have one--or a work table that is raised up to counter height to avoid bending over too much. 

sewslow67's picture

(post #23992, reply #31 of 46)

>>>I've permanently shreaded a nerve in my right shoulder from using the dining room table as my cutting surface. <<<

Would you mind elaborating on this injury?  I have a wonderful cutting table, but it is not here (where I live temporarily), so I have to use one of those card board layouts that I put on the top of the bed.  It is better than getting down on the floor, but the pain sets in within minutes.  Anyway, I would appreciate any information you can give that might help.  Thanks.

MarieCurie's picture

(post #23992, reply #32 of 46)

I'm not sure if I can fully explain it.  I'm right handed, and not very tall.  For a long time I used the dining room table to cut quilting fabric with a rotary cutter.  Once in a while I used the small student desk in my bedroom when I was cutting fat quarters, which just barely fit my cutting mat and the piece of fabric.  I had to twist and turn my back and shoulders to manipulate the ruler and cutter.  I was also hand quilting in a hoop.  After a time, I started having a sharp pain in my right shoulder that radiated down my arm and my back.  The only thing that made it better was to stop quilting.  Don't need to tell you that's like asking me to stop breathing oxygen.   The physical therapist said I probably had nerve damage, which will never fully heal, the trick is to make the shoulder muscles stronger.  Alas, I only had two visits with him because my child care dried up and my husband was in Afganistan.  Our guild had a talk from a local physical thearapist on correct body posture.  He said that to find the correct table height, stand up straight with your elbows at 90 degrees.  Your table height should be close to where your elbows bend.  I now have a table work surface at the correct height, and a big bottle of motrin.  I can rotary cut quilting fabric with joy, but using a rotary cutter on garment pieces hurts my shoulder from having to twist my arm and back around.  I also do strength training with hand weights, push ups etc.  But that's just vanity because I want to look good when my husband comes back from Iraq.

ohiostar's picture

(post #23992, reply #35 of 46)

Strengthening exercises are just not vanity, they will strengthen your core muscles so that you stand straighter and they help to remind you and your body when a position is causing potentially damaging muscle and tendon wear. I am a quilter and my core strengthening and weight training has led to less fatigue in my back and shoulders. I can machine quilt without feeling exhausted, and may designs are executed much more smoothly because of the strength in my shoulders. As Martha says "It's a good thing'!


It is not about Patience or Perfection, but Persistence.

jann It is not about Patience or Perfection, but Persistence.
gailete's picture

(post #23992, reply #10 of 46)

I think at least half of us here have significant health problems. I'm limited in what I can do also, so I spread out what I'm doing and don't think everything has to be made at once as others have also mentioned. I also try to do a little hand work or if everything is hurting (I have severe arthritis) I study my reference materials, ie. look through my magazines and sewing books to get ideas. They are all sewing related activities. Just sitting at your machine isn't the 'only' sewing you are doing. All of it counts from the planning to the finished photo and blogging/journaling your project if you are so inclined.

Our society works very hard at making us all work very hard at keeping our noses to the grindstone for everything including our hobbies. That isn't how it is supposed to work, our hobby should be relaxing, so take it slow and ENJOY the process. Take breaks and think about the next part of the process. Keep moving to get those muscles relaxed. As funny as it sounds when my back is in really bad shape, I sweep the floor as the large muscles motions seems to relax my back and shoulders and I have some really big floors to sweep.

If you are making quilt blocks, work on one and then maybe press it well, get a drink of water, then maybe make another one, press it, go to the bathroom, make another one, press it and then quit for awhile. Over the last 7 years I have learned if I want to continue with my hobbies I have to do them in a new way. I can no longer sew for hours at a time. About 15-30 minutes is my limit. But doing a little bit everyday will get those quilts made.

Keep your chin up. You are not alone and you are welcome to vent.


ohiostar's picture

(post #23992, reply #11 of 46)

Really, that does about nail it on the head for most of us. In order to do what I want to do, I just have to do it in chunks on time rather than marathons of time. Haven't we learned to become better organized, more thoughtful in our pursuits, and more forgiving of our lapses? Makes my life more peaceful than it used to be.


jann It is not about Patience or Perfection, but Persistence.
gailete's picture

(post #23992, reply #12 of 46)

Although it was wonderful and helped us to make quilts and clothes faster, chain piecing, quilts in a day/weekend, speed sewing tips, got us moving with our sewing projects and then GUILT invaded our lives if we didn't continue with our hobbies in the speediest manner possible just like everything else we were doing.

>>more thoughtful in our pursuits, and more forgiving of our lapses? Makes my life more peaceful than it used to be.<<

This feels so much more peaceful and calming, to take our time to make something lovely.

I want to weep when I see the occasional woman selling off their sewing machine because they have a toddler in the house so therefore have no time to sew. I sewed a lot with toddlers in the house, even with kids I was babysitting in the house. A hundred years ago, women with kids of every age sewed no matter how old their children were--how else would they have clothes? And they didn't have all the modern conveniences we have also to get their housework done. How and when did having a children start to be a 24 hours a day occupation that didn't leave any room for a woman to have a peaceful, fulfilling hobby? It is good for children to not be the constant center of attention and to see mom enjoying something fun, who knows they may become a sewer themselves. And yes I was a working mom so was doing the juggling act.



betsyb2's picture

(post #23992, reply #13 of 46)

Ha, ha Gail. I was just coming on to reply that its nice to know I'm not the only one unable to sew and quilt in marathon stretches. Not because of significant health problems, but because I have a baby and toddler in the house. Yes, they do keep me very busy, but this mommy's sanity rely's upon having time for the creativity of sewing. Not to mention I have my brand new really cool sewing/embroidery machine taunting me every time I walk through my sewing room.

As for back problems, have you tried a good chiropractor? I was always very leary of them but halfway through my last pregnancy I was in so much pain I was basically bed-bound. In desperation, after my OB's unhelpful suggestion that I take a tylenol, I tried a chiro. And have never looked back. Within days I was moving around better than I have in years.

ljb2115's picture

(post #23992, reply #14 of 46)

Amen to your discussion.  I sewed before, during and after both pregnancies.  It was an unwritten rule that when Mommy sewed, you were to stay (play) right by me and not touch anything!  I was custom sewing, doing alterations and sewing all my and the children's clothing.  No one was ever hurt and I don't think I damaged anyone's syche.  

ThreadKoe's picture

(post #23992, reply #15 of 46)

I also sewed when my children were small. They learned to amuse themselves quietly, and learned to play with scraps and such as well. They also wore lovely outfits, and knew when I was working on stuff for them. I often could only spend 10 or 15 minutes a day working on a project, but they got done.
Even now, I have several projects of all kinds on the go. Knitting or crochet in front of the TV in the LR. Handsewing in the kitchen where the light is better, and the phone is, tee hee hee. I work through several projects under the sewing machine, all in the same colour of thread, sewing and pressing all at the same time. They will be done, whenever they are done, in 10 or 20 minute stretches, as I find the time or inclination. I am always working on something. I want to enjoy the process, not rush through it anymore...Cathy

Ceeayche's picture

(post #23992, reply #16 of 46)

My mama sewed when we were young. That's how I developed my interest.  I learned very early that if I was well behaved and quiet I could acquire lots of treasures... I remember using used spools to make doll house furniture. And, of course the wonderful scraps became everything from superman capes for my sibling's GI Joes to pirate scarves to flags.  Then later, mom put me to work making doll clothes.  A bonus for mom... we quickly made the connection between her hours at the machine and our great outfits. As a result, we grew up haunting fabric stores even as little people. 

Greet each day with Joy.  Embrace your blessings.

Greet each day with Joy.  Embrace your blessings.

ThreadKoe's picture

(post #23992, reply #18 of 46)

Treasures they were indeed! Scraps, spools, small balls of yarn, bits of embroidery thread, odd buttons, anything Mom passed my way went into the sewing box my Grandmother had given me one year for Christmas. I remember spending hours puttering around with them! I recall Barbie being draped in wild and wonderful scraps as Mom made some clothes for her. No way I was making GI Joe anything after my brothers chopped the heads off of my favorite Barbies and stole the convertible and "car crashed" it!!!!!! (nope, even after almost 40 years I have not quite forgiven them, he he he)
You were lucky to have gotten to go fabric hunting as little people! I never got to do that! Maybe I would be a worse stashmaster than I am now, and that is bad enough, he he he...Cathy

Ceeayche's picture

(post #23992, reply #20 of 46)

Yes there is a down side to learning to shop for fabric so early.  While I learned the euphoria of finding a gem in the remnant barrel, I now have inherited her stash, taken mine out of storage and discovered she'd taken a friend's stash as well.  I'm on restriction big time until I get all this fabric inside the house.  Sad to say some of it is in garbage bags in the garage!  Now that the weather is threatening to turn humid that's my number one priority.

Quiet as it's kept the Gi Joe's were my sisters.  She's so feminine today you'd never guess she was a tomboy growing up.  They and other action figures "dated" our Barbies-- we grew up thinking Ken was a wimp!  They road around in her Tonka trucks-- the first Hummers!  But of course they had to be fashionably attired.

Greet each day with Joy.  Embrace your blessings.

Edited 6/2/2009 8:43 pm ET by CHL

Greet each day with Joy.  Embrace your blessings.

ThreadKoe's picture

(post #23992, reply #21 of 46)

Ummmm, OK, Ken was a wimp. And Tonka dump trucks carry a lot of Barbies around better than the convertible, no question! We had a sandpile full of Tonka for our girls here anyways, so I think that is normal anyways, tee hee hee. GI Joe was a doll and there were a few Dads in our neighbourhood who were upset by their sons playing with them anyhow....whatever....
I have finally opened and gone through all the boxes of my Mom's stuff I have inherited from her sewing room that my Dad had packed and given me. I still do not have a place for it all yet, but I know what is in there now. I ended up on a Box a Week plan....or more if I could manage. It is a sorrowful job mixed with joy at the same time. In a way, I am glad she was more of a yarn crafter than a sewer, so there is not so much fabric to deal with...just wool. A treasure trove of books to look through tho...
Enjoy your task of sorting her fabric, it keeps you close, even as you miss her. Cathy

gailete's picture

(post #23992, reply #22 of 46)

I remember the Christmas I got my Barbie for many reasons, but she came in a suitcase with lots of little outfits my mom had made. For many years I searched to find another Barbie like mine and about 5-6 years ago my sister finally let out that my Barbie was a generic doll as my mom couldn't afford a real one for me. I'm 53 now so that was a long held secret. She was one of a very few dolls I had as a child. Now girls have so many of these dolls, but how many of them know how to make them an outfit? SAD