When you spend as much time writing as Jennifer and I do, the task can become a pain in the neck—literally. Have you ever had writer’s cramp? Do you have trouble sleeping because of the tingling numbness in your hands and fingers? Having difficulty getting a grip on your mouse, your pen or stapler? Are your shoulders constantly aching? Is your neck stiff?
You’re not alone, but unfortunately, you—like so many other freelancers—are at risk of a repetitive strain injury (RSI). For writers, sitting for long periods of time in front of a computer terminal is a necessary evil. As freelancers, we don’t have the corporate luxury of consulting an on-staff ergonomist nor do we have the resources to finance a major overhaul of a flawed workstation.
However, I found an appointment with a local physical therapist to be affordable and helpful. Here are a tips she gave me regarding combating the ills associated with long periods of sitting:
(1) Prevent wrist burnout. Keep those wrists straight, not tilted at an angle. Adjust your keyboard, if necessary. Don’t rest your wrist or heel of your hand on the edge of a desk or table. At all costs, try to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).
CTS is characterized by a burning sensation, pain, thumb weakness and a frequency of dropping objects. If your hand has a tingling numbness, with the exception of the little finger and part of your ring finger, you probably have CTS. Splints, to keep the wrist straight, ice packs and rest will help relieve the discomfort. And try not to sleep with your wrists curled under your pillow at night.
Try this: Stretch both arms straight out in front of you, with finger tips pointing to the ceiling. Drop your hands, but not your arms, down and wiggle your fingers. Make a tight fist with both hands. Then bend your fists downward. Do this every hour or so to keep tendons limber.
(2) Perk up your posture. Many aches and pains can be eliminated by improved posture and by constantly changing your position. Sit upright on the edge of your chair, feet flat on the floor. Don’t hunch your shoulders. Instead, sit up straight with your chest out and shoulders back. Neck pains are often a result of a curved spine. Don’t thrust your neck forward like a clucking chicken as your read the computer screen. Adjustable chairs are a good investment, as is a posture chair on which you can kneel. This position forces the pelvic to line up with the spinal cord—particularly good for women writers.
Try this: To get relief for a stiff neck, tuck your chin down as far as possible, as though trying to make double or triple chins. Hold for five seconds. Repeat.
(3) Strengthen your back muscles. It’s easier to prevent those “golf balls” or knots between the shoulder blades than to get rid of them. Remember when your mother warned you not to slouch? She was right. Stand and sit up straight. Make a conscious effort to do so. Thrust your chest forward, your shoulders back. Swim often using the backstroke. Or do water walking, with your arms stretched out behind you and your chest leading the way through the pool.
Try this: Stand up and stretch your arms out to the side. Flap them back and forth until you can feel your back muscles tightening between your shoulder blades. Do this several times a day. Try it lying face down in bed—first thing in the morning and before you settle in for the night.
(4) Protect your eyes. Keep the lighting source at right angles to your screen. Use a glare filter, if necessary. Take frequent breaks, pulling your eyes from the screen and focusing them for twenty seconds or so at an object twenty feet away. Do you wear bifocals? You may want to have a pair of special pair of glasses just for working at the computer, as bifocal-wearers often throw back their heads too far to look at the screen.
(5) Wash your hands. If nothing else, this will provide you with frequent and necessary breaks from the computer. It also affords you with the opportunity to stretch your hard-working digits.
Try this: Open and flex your fingers as wide as you can. To this several times. Then wiggle your fingers, raising and lowering your arms to various positions to stimulate circulation. Keep a blob of Silly Putty or a tennis ball on your desk to manipulate.
(6) Take time to pursue good health. Drink plenty of water, exercise daily, and eat properly. Get plenty of vitamin B-6, which naturally lubricates tendons and helps prevent inflammation. Peas, carrots, spinach, chicken, beef, sunflower seeds, walnuts and eggs all are good sources of vitamin B-6. Keep in mind that any illness or condition, such as diabetes, fatigue, arthritis, and high blood pressure will only make you more prone to repetitive use injuries.
(7) Avoid numb butt. Don’t snigger! It can be a serious and permanent problem. Too much sitting can impinge upon your sciatic nerve, cutting necessary circulation. If this happens often enough, the nerve will die, resulting in a permanently numb tush. The same can happen to writers who continually slump forward, cutting off circulation to the scalene muscles. This can result in permanent numbness near the collarbone and in the arms.
So, there’s more at stake here than good posture. There’s your quality of life to consider—do you really want to face a future of not being able to open a jar of instant coffee because you suffer from chronic, painful tendonitis? You must also take into account your productivity as a writer. Locking yourself into one physical position in an effort to meet an important deadline may result in a permanent injury that will prevent you from taking further writing assignments in the future.
Get up and stretch—now! Your life and livelihood may depend upon it!