Writer’s cramp and other maladies…

Is your writing career turning into a pain in the neck? Do you experience occasional numbness and tingling in your hands? Does it feel like it’s impossible to sit up straight for any length of time at the computer? Headaches? Muscle spasms? Wrist and forearm pain? Cramps? Tendinitis? These are all symptoms of the postural imbalances that are created when we spend too much time sitting at the computer. If it feels as if gravity is winning and you are slowly shrinking into a ball of knots, consider that this post is for you.

PJ Sharon here, and after twenty years as a Physical Therapist Assistant in the field of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, and eight years as a Massage Therapist and personal trainer, I have a unique perspective on how to address these issues. I’ve come to see our current sedentary lifestyle as the “De-Evolution of man.”

Humor me when I suggest that for the past 50,000 years or so, we have walked upright for good reason. We could not have created the world we know today if this evolutionary change had not occurred. So why, in the past hundred years have we become a society of people who can’t run fast enough to save our lives, let alone catch our dinner? How have we devolved so quickly that heart disease, Diabetes, and Cancer are killing us at epidemic rates while most of us have access to the most advanced medical technologies known to mankind? So glad you asked!

I’ll leave the huge problems with our diet, pollutants, chemical toxicity, and over-dependence on sugar for another day. Today, I’ll focus on one simple fact that is at the root of many of our health issues–especially our orthopedic complaints. One fact that we can control. Our bodies are not designed for prolonged sitting—although our widening hips and increased padding may suggest otherwise. I’m sure none of us wants that to be our evolutionary norm. We may not be able to fight “progress” in the world of technology or the societal decline of a physically active lifestyle, but we can change how much WE sit. The rise in health problems coming about because of the “computer-age lifestyle” should be evidence enough that things need to change. READ this NY Times article if you think I’m exaggerating.

But change isn’t so easy, is it?

I’m a big one for focusing on what we CAN do rather than what we CAN’T. So here are a few things that may help.

1) Check your set-up (feet flat on floor, support behind your lower back, knees lower than your hips, screen directly in front of you, and mouse in close enough to keep your elbow in close to your body. Avoid reaching and make sure you have a wrist support.

2) Stop every hour and get up, walk around, stretch and drink water.

3) Try a “stand-up desk” or a “treadmill desk.” Check out the above article for suggestions.

4) More on stretching—

a) Hold stretches and breathe deeply four or five times. Stretching should not be painful. If it hurts, stop and get proper instruction from a physical therapist or personal trainer.

b) Tip ear toward shoulder and extend opposite arm out to side to stretch the deep neck stabilizers. When these muscles are chronically tight, it weakens the neck and can also contribute to nerve impingement and carpal tunnel symptoms.

c) Stretch your forearms by extending your arm straight out in front and gently pulling your fingers down toward the floor and then up toward the sky. There are a few variations of this to stretch deeper into the forearm muscles. Wrist stretch 2wrist stretch 1
Yoga postures are great for wrist flexibility and strength.

d) Stretch your legs. Basic calf, quad, hamstring, hip flexor, and piriformis stretches can make a remarkable impact on spinal tensions that affect the neck and back. It is worth working with a certified trainer to learn proper stretching technique.

e) Get a massage on a regular basis. Once a month is recommended for maintenance. At the very least, every three months is acceptable. You probably change the oil in your car and pay your taxes that often. How much more important is it to take care of yourself?

Today’s unlocked secret: The bottom line is that we need to get off our bottoms!

A final thought—if you really are the boss, would you treat an employee the way you treat yourself, or would you insist they take care of themselves properly and encourage them to avoid overuse issues that would ultimately cost you in decreased productivity?

Okay, writers…what are you willing to change to correct this De-Evolutionary disaster waiting to happen?


21 thoughts on “Writer’s cramp and other maladies…”

  1. I’m glad you covered this. My back muscles are often very tight and even cause pain. However, a couple of months ago I finally invested in a laptop stand, keyboard, and mouse that allows the monitor to be raised to a better height. I already notice a big difference in how my neck and shoulders feel now that the screen is closer to eye level and the keyboard and mouse are at a good height for my wrists and hands.

    Plus, you’re reminding me to take out my physical therapy band (is that what it’s called?) and do those stretching exercises my chiropractor gave me. Thanks!

    1. Small changes in ergonomics can make all the difference, Julie. It’s taken me forever to tweak my setup so that it’s just right. And thera-band exercises are perfect for strengthening postural muscles. Good job, my friend:-)

  2. I’m a mess–my posture is not hot on a good day. In the past year, I’ve had great writing results, but my pinkies and ring fingers get numb, even when I ride in the car now. Every now and then I’ll pull something in my neck, and it gets harder to get comfy at night. All this because I have probably the world’s worst work set-up. In a few years, I’ve gone from one of the most active people I know to someone who has to sit on her butt and get work done. And it was much easier to get into the habit of sitting on my butt than it is to get out of it! But I’m trying! And I am working on a new work set-up as well (with a real desk!).

    1. We must talk, my dear! I totally hear you about going from uber-active to sedentary in a flash. I’ve really had to work hard to keep up my fitness and every day is a struggle to balance it all. I’m looking forward to doing an ergonomics and stretching craft corner for CTRWA this spring. If you are going to do this writing thing for the long-haul, you’ll need to find some balance and make your posture a priority. The first thing you can change is your setup…DO IT NOW! The second thing you can do is get yourself to a good Massage Therapist or Chiropractor.

      1. Melanie, it sounds like you are experiencing nerve impingement at C5-C6 in your neck. Try doing some chin tucks, shoulder rolls, and the neck stretch I mentioned above, about three times a day and see if that helps. Contact me off loop with questions and more stretches that might help:-)

  3. And, when the body works, the brain works better. If you get absorbed, as I do, set a timer at your desk to remind you to get up, move around, and streeeeeeeeech. Thanks for the good advice, Paula!

    1. Great tip about the timer, Peter. I took your advice last year and got one. I used it for a while and finally have developed the habit enough that I don’t have to use it anymore:-)

  4. Paula, so what you are saying is that sitting at the computer for longer than our body’s can tolerate will have us walking on all fours–again? Well, not me for sure, I think, anyway. I do my back stretching and walking everyday. Thanks for the great post.

    1. Good for you on staying active, Gail.

      I was trying to take from the “De-Evolution” phrase. I do think that as technology progresses and our dependence on it grows, we are growing physically weaker as a species. I don’t necessarily think it will lead us backward to primate form, but I do think the physical adaptations are not going in the right direction.

  5. I use a stability ball chair, but i have to take care to be sure it’s properly inflated or I have trouble with my knees. Thank goodness my chair yoga class comes at a convenient time, and I’ve been able to schedule riding in, too. I try to consume enough fluids so that, when I’m writing in The Zone, I’ll have to get up periodically to make my bladder gladder. Maybe I should look into adding massage therapy periodically? Once a quarter, you say? Too bad you’re so far away from where I live.

    1. I love the making the bladder gladder phrase. I do the same thing. If I’m on a roll, I’ll cross m y legs and hold it until I get to a good place to stop, With the amount of water I drink, I barely last an hour, LOL.

      Check out the AMTA website and see if you can find someone local who is licensed in Massage Therapy.

  6. PJ, very “on the nose” post. I blogged about posture a few weeks ago. Last year, I remember you left a comment on one of my articles, saying I should seek PT for bulging discs. I did! Traction felt wonderful and now I have exercises I do to stretch my lower back.

    But the best is yet to come. My DH has ordered me a “sit-to-stand” desk. It should be here this week. Can’t wait!

    1. That’s awesome, Carole. I remember suggesting the traction. So glad you followed up and that it worked out for you. Just keep doing those exercises:-) Let me know how you like your new “desk.” I’m thinking of getting one.

  7. Hi PJ. Thanks for these great reminders. We work so diligently on crafting and editing our stories, getting them into tip top shape for readers and all the while we forget we need to move around, stretch, take good care of the writer. Another thing that I try to remember to do is look away from my computer screen and focus on something farther away. Blink and close my eyes for a few seconds so they don’t get exhausted. Happy writing. Jordan

  8. Great tips. I’m going to make some changes because of them. If I’m on the computer long the next day the left side of my neck and shoulders are stiff and a little sore, probably because my computer is off to the right side..

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