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Michelangelo’s Agony

By PainFix co-founder PainFix Team

Michelangelo did not consider himself a painter, yet he painted one of the world’s greatest feats of art. The nearly 12,000 square feet canvas of the Sistine Chapel took him four years to complete, earned him 3,000 ducats and lifelong agonizing physical pain.

Imagine standing on scaffolding (that you naturally built yourself), 40 feet high with your head craned back, arm held overhead and outstretched, carefully placing brushstrokes of paint onto the ceiling. Imagine doing this for hours each day for four years during the early 1500s, a time when the understanding of biomechanics and good ergonomic techniques was non-existent. There was no neighborhood physical therapist or chiropractor to turn to and the human body was still largely a mystery. Leonardo da Vinci had only just produced the first accurate depiction of the human spine. 


Michelangelo was not silent about his suffering. Polymath that he was, he wrote a tragicomicpoem about his time painting the Sistine Chapel to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia. He describes vividly how contorting his body to complete his labor caused his neck to swell, his spine to bend unnaturally and his muscles to become stiff and atrophied: 

I've already grown a goiter from this torture, 

hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy

(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison). 

My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's 

pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket, 

my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,

above me all the time, dribbles paint

so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,

my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight, 

every gesture I make is blind and aimless. 

My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's 

all knotted from folding over itself.

I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I'm stuck like this, my thoughts 

are crazy, perfidious tripe:

anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.

Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor. 

I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

It’s not hard to imagine Michelangelo’s agony. Just ask anyone who has ever painted a ceiling for a weekend project. The result is usually a sore neck, shoulder pain and a lot of regret for not calling the professionals. Even professional painters can’t avoid the long term impact of repeated stresses to their upper body from regularly raising their arms over their shoulders. 

In one  study comparing 100 individuals who have worked for at least 10 years as a painter to a control group of 100 non-painter individuals, nearly half of the painter group (45%) suffered from either a full or partial tear in their rotator cuffs compared to 8% in the control group. 52% of the painters suffered pain from shoulder impingement, compared to only 7% among the non-painters. Shoulder impingement is common enough among painters that they’ve named the problem “Painter’s Shoulder”. 

What then could Michelangelo have done to avoid this and other problems like cervical disc compression? Some modern day mural painters tie a towel around their neck to create a supporting cushion when they bend their head back. Physical therapists would further recommend regular breaks during his monumental task, and doing neck and shoulder stretches. Nonetheless, since it’s presumably difficult for Michelangelo to climb down the scaffolding to take constant breaks to move around, and given the focus he needed to complete the job, there was probably not much he could do to avoid getting injured during the process. 

For those embarking on history-making projects like Michelangelo, getting on a pain prevention and management program early can reduce the risks of complications later. Someone embarking on something as ambitious as painting the Sistine Chapel should not only take regular breaks to stretch and exercise their upper body, but try PainFix’s Recovery Kit program too. 

Inspired by PainFix’s founders’ treatment programs at their pain management clinics in Asia, the PainFix Recovery Kit is a simple three step program:

Step 1: Massage your neck and shoulder muscles with our Relief Gel, before, during and after the paint job each day. The Relief Gel contains herbs that can reduce inflammation and improve blood flow around the stiff areas of the neck. 

Step 2: While at the job, apply our Restore Patch to your neck and shoulders for therapeutic support during the long arduous hours at work. The patches provides an extended anti-inflammatory and healing function as well as providing support. And 

Step 3: Perform the targeted physical therapy stretches and exercises before, during and after your paint job. 

Use PainFix for when it  really matters.