This month I’m going to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately – back pain. Like many writers, I spend a lot of time sitting in front of my computer. Add to that the time I spend working at the computer for my day job and it’s no wonder my back’s been giving me grief. The pain not only makes me feel miserable, it makes me a less productive writer. It’s time to take some action.
First of all, what causes back pain? Here are some of the most common causes:
Strains, sprains and spasms –The most common cause of back pain is an injury to a muscle (strain) or to a ligament (sprain) in the back. Strains and sprains can be caused by improper lifting, excessive weight, and poor posture. Even an awkward sleeping position or hauling around a heavy purse all day can cause a strain or sprain. An injured muscle may also “knot up.” This muscle spasm is your body’s way of immobilizing the affected area to prevent further damage.
Osteoarthritis – Osteoarthritis is also known as “wear and tear” arthritis. As we age, the cushions (disks) between the vertebrae in our backs become flatter and less flexible. Without the cushioning these disks provide, the joints between the vertebrae press tightly together, often causing back pain and stiffness.
Herniated Disk – Normal wear and tear over time can cause one of the disks in your spine to rupture (herniate). Exceptional strain or traumatic injury can have the same effect. Many people describe this as a “slipped” disk. Back pain results when the herniated disk pinches one of the nerves that come out of the spinal cord. If the sciatic nerve is affected, you may develop sciatica — a sharp, shooting pain in the lower back, buttocks and leg.
Osteoporosis – As we age we lose calcium in our bones, causing them to become less dense and more brittle. If you have osteoporosis, lifting and other routine tasks can cause fractures, called compression fractures, to form on the front part of the weakened bones of your back. These fractures result in back pain.
Fibromyalgia – Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by fatigue and widespread pain in the muscles, ligaments and tendons — including the lower back.
So what can we as writers do to keep our backs healthy and pain free? Some of the things we can do to keep our backs pain free are the same things we need to do to maintain good general health:
Keep Fit – Strong and flexible muscles will keep your back in shape. Both the back muscles and the abdominal muscles need to be strengthened in order to keep the back from hurting. Exercises for these “core” muscles will assist in this strengthening. You can see a slideshow of core exercises at Mayo Clinic’s website.
Keep your weight under control – Watching your weight not only keeps your heart healthy, improves your mood and increases your confidence, it also reduces your risk of back pain. According to the website “Back Pain Expert”, weight gain may result in back pain “because the lower back, known as the lumbar region, supports the weight of the whole of the upper body, and gaining weight, as well as putting an extra strain on the knee and hip joints, can increase the burden on the lumbar region. This puts additional pressure on the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons of the back. Long-term, the extra weight can damage the discs between the vertebrae, the bones that make up the spine, can cause the spine to develop an unnatural curve, and can worsen the bone damage in osteoporosis.” Another good reason to say no to that extra helping at dinner!
Stop smoking – If you needed yet another reason to quit smoking, Dr. Mehmet Oz says that smoking can cause “accelerated disk degeneration and increased pain.”
Get some sleep – Dr. Oz also says that getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night allows the body to repair itself. Go to the above website for tips in finding the right sleep position and for sleeping better.
Stretch it Out – I find that stretching helps to take the stiffness out of my back as well as alleviating the pain. To view a slideshow of stretches supplied by the Mayo Clinic please click on this website: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/back-pain/LB00001_D
Even if we follow all the advice for healthy living, if we aren’t careful about the way we work, it could be all for naught. Here’s some tips for keeping your back pain free while still being a productive writer:
The Chair’s the Thing – A properly fitting office chair is probably the single most important tool in keeping your back pain free. Make sure to adjust your chair to your height before you adjust your monitor, keyboard or mouse. If you don’t have an adjustable chair, consider using a lumbar support or a pillow to support your back, using a pillow under your seat if you’re sitting too low, or a footrest under your feet to bring your thighs parallel with the ground. Healthy Computing has good information on setting up your chair as well as information on what to look for when you’re buying a new chair. But even a new chair won’t do you any good unless you adjust it properly. Check out this post at Comfy Office Chair on adjusting your office chair in six easy steps.
Remember to Move – The body can only stay comfortably in one position for about 20 minutes at time. If you get too absorbed in your work and lose track of time, set a timer to remind you to change position.
Remember to Stretch – You can do a few stretches throughout the day, right at your computer: http://www.healthycomputing.com/health/stretches/back.html
Check your Posture – Relax your shoulders, keep your feet flat on the floor, and avoid leaning close to tasks on your desk. To see illustrations of good posture, check this website: http://www.healthlinkbc.ca/kb/content/special/tr5915.html#ty6987
I really try to follow many of these suggestions: I use a lumbar support, I try to maintain good posture, and I stretch with yoga and Pilates. Hardest of all, I’m trying to keep my weight down. But still, I have problems. I guess it’s time to visit the chiropractor.
Update: I was finding it very difficult to sit for extended periods, so my husband built me a “standing desk”. All it is a wooden box that’s big enough to fit my keyboard and mouse (or laptop), and sits on top of my regular desk. I can remove if want to, or just move my keyboard back to its regular position when I want to sit for awhile. There are expensive standing desks out there, but its easy to find creative solutions that really help.
Have you ever experienced back pain while writing? What do you do to alleviate it?
And on a totally unrelated note, my first novel with Carina Press, FIRST AND AGAIN, releases next Monday! Yay! Be sure to drop by to read an excerpt!