Woodworking as a Treatment for a Traumatic Brain Injury

After suffering a TBI following a car accident, Leah Dash has found therapeutic relief mixing creativity and anatomy-inspired woodworking

By: Leah Dash, UWS doctor of chiropractic student


woodworking collage

As with any college student, I’m always coming across things on Facebook that I can’t afford (thanks, advertising people). More than once have I seen something and then tried my hand at making my own version. However, these have always been small crafts like pennants, embroidery projects, etc. I have always enjoyed exploring different crafts, but it became even more important after I suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a car accident in July 2018. Doing small focused and detailed tasks is actually therapy for my brain. I am still in occupational therapy but things like this are helpful in managing my symptoms.

So, in January, when I saw a posting for a “Rustic Barnwood Atlas Vertebra” for $300, I was immediately in love. Rustic? Barnwood? That’s basically everyone’s interior design scheme right now. And anatomy? Spine related? I had to have it. However, that price tag… for what is essentially recycled wood, I couldn’t justify.

Where does anyone our age go when they need to learn a new skill (aside from chiro school)? YouTube.

I fell down the proverbial hole of YouTube. I watched every video I could find on how to cut basic wood shapes and figured I had to try to make one for myself. Finally, ready to start doing instead of watching, I went out and bought a jigsaw and started practicing. The first few were obviously terrible, but I slowly started to get the hang of it. At this point I also realized I was using the wrong tool and then purchased a used scroll saw off Facebook marketplace. I know I’d mentioned cost above and at this point it was at about $100 for both tools.

Inspired by some signs I saw on Pinterest and emboldened by my practice cuts, I decided to make a “Welcome” sign with the O replaced by an Atlas. This first attempt at lettering was pretty large, which is actually easier than making small cuts and was only a little wiggly, but let’s just call it “rustic,” ok? I then posted it on my Instagram and was surprised to receive a lot of attention from friends and local doctors. That was when I decided to sell a few to help offset the cost and make sure that I didn’t start hoarding wood vertebra.

Most of what I make is anatomy based and I definitely consider the scroll saw to be my favorite tool. However, I also do a lot of pyrography, which is a woodburning technique that uses a heated pen to burn designs into wood. Obviously working on anatomy inspired pieces not only helps to improve my general knowledge (especially in Bone Path and other radiography courses), but it helps with my visual perception issues, such as perceiving a 3D object in space. I also have some issues with convergence and accommodation leftover by my TBI that are also helped by this “exercise” of focusing on the outline of my project on the scroll saw.  

I’m also very thankful because when my fiancé lost his job at the beginning of quarantine, focusing on these projects, as well as the small amount of revenue, helped offset my anxiety and our grocery bills. I’m also very proud because he managed to get another job a week ago, despite the current economic crisis, so we’re on much firmer footing now. However, I have continued woodworking each week throughout the term and plan to continue in the future.

In my future practice, I hope to be able to display a lot of cute chiropractic things throughout the office, especially one of my Welcome signs. I also really love giving them as gifts to friends, so I hope to continue to be able to do that as well, as long as people don’t get sick of handmade gifts.

If anyone is interested in buying one of my signs or requesting a custom piece please follow my Instagram @spine.tree or you can email me [email protected]. Just please keep in mind that my student schedule is pretty crazy and these things take time.

Speaking of crazy schedules, if you have a hobby that you want to work on and feel like you don’t have time- it’s something that you just have to set time aside for. Just like the emphasis we place on physical health and the importance of movement; we need to remember that mental health is just as important.  In my case, my brain firmly puts its foot down when it needs a break from studying but there are so many other signs from your body telling you that you need to go out there and do something that makes your heart happy. Also, if anyone wants to get into woodworking/woodburning let me know! I’m happy to help anyone on their crazy sawdust journey.