Bet you never thought being a writer could be dangerous to your health.
At the moment, I’m living proof that writing can cause all sorts of pain—and not just the excruciating mental pain of trying to create a literary masterpiece.
I’m talking real pain. Physical pain.
Writing is Not for the Weak
Let me start by saying that 75 percent of my extremities hurt right now. That’s a lot of extremities.
Three days ago, I finally admitted to myself that all the typing I’m doing is taking a toll on my wrists. The pain has been there intermittently for months, but on this particular day I was hurting enough to know changes need to be made to my routine before I end up with RSI or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
I spent the afternoon icing my wrists.
This very same day, I happened to be taking a brisk walk to mentally work through some issues with my novel. When I reached the top of a steep street, I turned around and started back down the hill. I suppose I was spending so much of my mental energy on my writing that I neglected to pay close enough attention to where I was walking—that is, down a gravel-strewn street.
I slipped, turned over on my ankle, and stumbled forward. Having sprained that same ankle three times before, I was pretty confident it would swell up very soon.
The good news: I was only steps away from a public phone booth. The bad news: I didn’t have any money. By the time I’d walked ten blocks home, it was swollen and black.
I spent the night icing my ankle.
Listen to Your Body
I think we sometimes ignore the physical signs that we’re pushing ourselves too hard. Have you noticed any of the following?
- Wrist/Hand Pain: It may creep up on you little by little. Perhaps you start to suffer from stiffness in the hands or wrists, but over time you might begin to suffer real pain from typing, clicking a mouse, or improper hand positioning.
- Back Pain/Sciatica: Where do you sit when you write? In a supportive chair or a slouchy couch? Perhaps your back pain or sciatica is caused, or exacerbated, by your seating arrangements.
- Clumsiness: You might think it’s a bit of a stretch, but I maintain that the more deeply engaged I am in my writing, the clumsier I become. This can also result from lack of sleep if you’re writing late into the night or very early in the morning. Whether it be spraining an ankle, stubbing a toe, walking into a wall or dropping a can on your foot, allowing your mind to drift off to dreamland can indirectly cause you pain.
Listen to your body. If you’re in pain or you’re physically or mentally exhausted, there’s something wrong.
5 Ways to Protect Yourself from Writing-Related Pain
- Set yourself up for success. I’ve asked my husband to set me up with an ergonomic keyboard that I can use in conjunction with my laptop, and also with a proper mouse instead of the fingerpad I’ve been using.
- Use proper seating. Because I have an active toddler in the house, I do find myself writing on the couch instead of at the desk. But, I’m going to make a concerted effort to sit in the supportive desk chair I do have whenever possible. This will protect my back (I often suffer from sciatica and lower-back pain) and also improve my hand posture at the keyboard.
- Get the right exercise. A combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching will help keep you in top physical form. And while good health and writing might not be directly related, being in good condition will help you write for longer periods of time without strain. Taking time to stretch every half hour while you’re writing will also make a difference.
- Walk smart. Don’t follow in my footsteps. When you get out for a walk and your mind is consumed with one of your writing projects, make sure you’re wearing proper footwear with good treads, walk on even surfaces that are free of gravel (or slow down and pay closer attention when you come to less-than-ideal footpaths), and watch where you’re putting your feet.
- Get enough sleep. Helpguide.org says it’s a myth that “Getting just 1 hour less sleep per night won’t effect your daytime functioning. You may not be noticeably sleepy during the day. But even slightly less sleep can affect your ability to think properly and respond quickly, and compromise your cardiovascular health, energy balance, and ability to fight infections.” Do make an effort to get enough quality sleep at night, even if it means writing for a little less time. A well-rested mind will help you accomplish more in less time, anyway.
Have you suffered any painful effects of writing—either directly or indirectly? How do you deal with them, or how do you plan to protect yourself in the future?
Join the discussion
This is such an important reminder to all of us. I have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome which makes me especially prone to all sorts of hand, back, neck, and migraine issues. I spend so much time on the computer in both my regular job and writing that my back is a wreck. I try to do yoga at least five days a week and get a weekly massage to keep it under control, and I can definitely tell when I miss a day or two. As writers, our body is our tool as much as our mind. Using the computer definitely takes its toll. And yes–I agree that teaching ourselves to focus so intently on our craft and characters, we do tend to be more distracted. I definitely see this in my own life.
I hope you feel better soon!!!!
Yoga is great, except I’m so not flexible! I should really get a beginner’s DVD or something and it myself 🙂
Ouch! And thank you for the very important reminders. I would add: ice as a hazard (in my neck of the woods) and eye strain. Hope you feel better soon!
I grew up in Canada, so I know all about ice, Julia!
Julie Duffy says
I woke up to a sore back and two blog posts on this topic today. I think someone’s trying to tell me something.
Hmmm, yes, might be a sign!
Khaula Mazhar says
This is so true, we do end up getting careless about ourselves,but sometimes it is just so hard to take a break! It is already such a slow process, you just want to write all day all night and have your finished product ready.
It probably gets easier to take breaks once you get into the habit. Sometimes I set my laptop on the kitchen counter so I can stand and get the blood flowing while I’m typing.
Cathy Yardley says
A good friend of mine, who is both a prolific NYT bestseller and a writing teacher, has had to deal with carpal tunnel and now a bad nerve issue related to teeth clenching. It’s amazing to know how much she can write and still produce quality work, but it’s also been enlightening to realize that it comes with a price, and the more it’s ignored, the harder it hits.
My dentist told me recently I’m showing signs of clenching and grinding my teeth, which I hadn’t noticed before. Now I notice all the time that I’m doing it! A bit scary.
I’ve had carpal tunnel problems. The solution: voice recognition technology. Dragon Naturally Speaking is a hundred US bucks, and works great. Near perfect with version 11. It controls the computer (e.g., just say Open Word), it is easy to correct, even for a person with sloppy pronunciation like myself. The only problem I have with it is for first-time dictating of ideas. I tend to be way too wordy with huge long sentences if I’m not careful. It’s because I don’t follow their advice enough: think the sentence through in your head first, hear it, then say it out loud. But it’s just terrific.
I’m thought so much about using a voice recorder, but I’d really have to train myself to do it. I’m such a visual person, I think I’d find it difficult to say the words I want to write instead of type them. Still, it’s a great idea, and one I should really look into!
http://www.shelterpub.com/_fitness/_stretching_in_the_office/online_stretches.html has a pdf file to keep ready for your screen or printout. The title makes it clear what it will do for you. Or try this one: http://www.shelterpub.com/_fitness/_desk_stretches/stretches_graphic.html
Thanks, Marty! Sorry, your comment got stuck in my spam filter because of the link, and is only being published now. Guess I should check it more often!
Christi Craig says
“Writing is not for the weak.” I love that. I’m completely guilty of setting up my writing space in non-ergonomic ways, since I move around the house. My official space for writing is in the basement, and it’s chilly down there this time of year. Still, I could offset any temporary ailments that have come from it (mostly back tweaks) by…ahem…exercising. Thanks for that gentle reminder.
And, I hope that ankle heals soon!
The worst part is that I was doing so well with exercising when I twisted my ankle. I’d been doing an hour of walking or an aerobics DVD at home nearly every day, and it was making a huge difference. Now I have to lay off the cardio for a couple of weeks, but I’m still doing strength training at home to keep up my fitness.
Heather M. O'Connor says
Great suggestions. I use a therapy ball instead of an office chair some of the time. Works my abs, helps strengthen my back — and it’s fun!
Oh, great suggestion! I do have one of the large exercise balls which I bought when I was pregnant, but it makes a great chair! Should have mentioned that one in the article 🙂
Scott Perkins says
Thanks for talking about this — too few do. Writer’s conferences should include seminars on surviving our trade. (I realize to my shame that I haven’t mentioned it on my writing blog either since November of ’09.)
It probably comes up more in office professions, but someone who spends a lot of time writing–whether professionally or for a hobby–probably falls prey to the same type of pains and injuries office workers.
What timing. I have to wonder how many writers are doing too much work for too little pay. I’m realizing that I must pursue higher paying cients. Otherwise it’s brutal.
That’s a good idea if you’re a freelance writer–work smarter to work less. Unfortunately, for those of us who are trying to become successful novelists, there’s no payout at all! Even if we get ourselves published, the monetary rewards are nothing compared to the time we’ll put into writing the books. Call us crazy!
Amy Weaver says
People never consider the actual physical pain of writing. There are days that my back and neck hurts, although I try my hardest to sit properly. Thank you for posting and it’s good information to keep in the forefront of our mind!
I feel like I’m always in pain. Doesn’t bode well for 20 years from now! 😉
BJ Muntain says
Although my problem wasn’t caused by my writing, writing does bring it on at times. About 15years ago, I worked at a job that required a lot of fast typing. I didn’t take care of my wrists, and wound up with bad tendinitis. I had to wear wrist splints for three months, then undergo physiotherapy to get them back to some semblance of normal. Now, I know how to recognize when I’m typing too much, and take a break. I also use an ergonomic keyboard and try to keep my working arrangements as ergonomically proper as possible.
I agree. Writing hasn’t caused my sciatica, but sitting for long periods of time exacerbates the pain that’s already there.
Wanna grow old fast? Then don’t move. My joints are like an old person’s and I thought it was high time I gave them a break. Get a regular plan, listen to the advise of most “writers on writing” books …
Stephan King and others … read Nora Roberts web page and study her “work schedule” … these and many other experienced career authors all say the same thing … MOVE IT!
Thanks for a great post 🙂
Will have to check out Nora Roberts and her work schedule. Thanks for the suggestion!
Mallory Snow says
I think you’re right about the correlation between writing immersion and clumsiness because every NaNoWriMo, I injure my hands! Usually burning them with various microwavable foods.
This is a great reminder. Just like athletes, we have to take care of our writing tools or risk not being able to write as we get older because we didn’t take care of ourselves now.
I think writers are simply more likely to ignore pain because we don’t usually associate this vocation with being detrimental to our health. We need to pay more attention to what our bodies are telling us.
Ashley Prince says
I have never really thought about the physical toll of writing before. I definitely think about the emotional and mental toll, because I constantly have to remind myself that no writer is perfect and that I can’t force words onto a page or my computer if the words are not there.
Recently, I have been doing a lot more writing than I normally do. I have two blogs that I host and one that I co-host with my husband. I also have been participating in the 30 Day Letter Challenge on Facebook to keep my writing stamina up and going. On top of that, I am still working on my novel that I started for NaNoWriMo last year.
I am guilty of typing away for hours slouched on the couch or hunched over my coffee table. My husband and I have no real desk so we invested in a coffee table that extends toward us. Useful for eating on the couch, not so much for writing on the couch.
Thank you for this insightful post. I will definitely be making amends to my exercise schedule. That is, actually have one while I’m writing.