I was working too many hours a day. I knew it, but I had deadlines to meet. As a full-time freelance writer, it’s not like I could tell my clients I was getting too tired.
I kept going. Thirty-something years old, I wasn’t even thinking about my body. Sure, my back was a little sore when I finally shut the computer down for the night, but no pain, no gain, right?
I operated like this for months. Long hours. I still exercised—jogged several times a week and did about 30 minutes of yoga every night. I met my deadlines. But one weekend, while cleaning house, I leaned down to pick something up and lightning hit my spine.
I dropped to the floor. I’d never felt anything so painful. After getting over the shock, I tried to get up. The lightning came back. I waited a little while longer, and tried again. More lightning. Fire in my lower spine. I couldn’t move without reigniting it.
I got a little frightened. I worried something really serious had happened. But I can be patient. I waited. About an hour later, I was able to get up on my hands and knees. I could crawl around, as long as I was careful not to twist too much.
I slept on my side with a pillow between my knees. The next day, I could stand up, but I couldn’t lean over, not even slightly, without re-experiencing the horrible pain. I learned to walk like a robot, dreading any slight movement that would take me off-center.
A doctor’s appointment revealed I had herniated a disc. I was referred to a spinal specialist. Meanwhile, I returned to my yoga. I did slow, easy stretches every night. By the time I got in to see the spinal doctor a few weeks later, I had a nice lump in my back—which I still carry today—but I could touch my toes. I wouldn’t need surgery, thank heavens.
For the next two months, however, I had to do my work on the floor, with a notebook computer balanced on my belly.
I couldn’t sit, not even for 10 minutes, without suffering serious pain.
I vowed I would never let that happen again.
Today, I take regular precautions to make sure that yes, I meet my deadlines, but that also ensure I can keep meeting them without having to work on the floor.
If you’re a writer, and you spend more than an hour a day working at a computer, you’re at risk for back pain. Here are three signs that signal danger down the road—and accompanying action steps to be sure you don’t end up like I did!
1. You have back pain for more than a week.
May seem obvious, but ask yourself—how many times have you ignored those little aches and pains? I had quite a bit of “warning pain” before I ended up on the floor, but I ignored it, figuring it was just a sign of working long hours and I would be fine.
I’m not saying you have to run to the doctor if your back muscles are sore. In many cases, surgery, especially, doesn’t help.
“Studies that have randomized individuals with back pain to get either surgery or non-surgical treatments,” says Dr. Howard Schubiner, clinical professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine, “show little benefit to surgery.”
Instead, if you’re experiencing back pain, take it as a warning that you need to make some changes. We’ll talk about several of those, but let’s start with the most important one.
Action step: Cut back on the hours you’re spending in the chair. Sitting is the new smoking, they say. Studies have found it’s bad for you, on a number of levels. (Find more on that here—one study, for instance, found that sitting for more than 6 hours a day increased risk of death by nearly 40%.) In addition to affecting your overall health, it’s also horrible for your back.
When you sit, the top of the pelvis rotates backwards, which flattens the natural curve of the spine, creating more pressure on the discs. The best solution—get up and walk around. Every hour, take 5-10 minutes to walk. Set a timer. It’s that important.
2. You’re suffering from sciatica.
Maybe you’ve had it before, that shooting pain down the back of your leg. Sometimes we get it after a long road trip, or airline flight. Women may suffer from it during pregnancy. But if you’re experiencing it and you haven’t been traveling and you’re not pregnant, it’s time to pay attention.
Sciatica is a pain in the backside or a burning, tingling feeling down the back of the leg. You may also have weakness or numbness in the foot, and the pain may feel worse when you’re sitting. Usually the condition affects just one side.
Irritated nerves in the lower back cause the problem. It could also be a herniated disc. Like lower back pain, this is a sign that something isn’t right, and you need to make some changes.
Action step: Stretch.
Sitting tightens and shortens your hamstring muscles, which puts more pressure on your spine. Regularly stretching those muscles and the muscles in your lower back helps keep you flexible and pain-free.
I swear by yoga for back health. It’s the reason why I was able to recover on my own, without medical intervention. It also helps reverse muscle tension, and increases your endurance for working at the computer.
If you’re not into yoga, though, there are some stretches you can do to help reduce the pain of sciatica—and to prevent any future back problems. I’d highly recommend you get into a regular stretching routine that you do every day, no exceptions.
Here are some options to get you started:
- Lie on your back. Pull one knee up into your chest. Grab the back of the leg and pull it closer to your chest. Hold for 20 seconds and release. Repeat on the other side, and repeat both 2-3 times.
- In the same position, bring the knee up, and then, while keeping your back flat on the floor, take the opposing hand and place it on your raised knee. Slowly, pull that knee straight across your body toward the floor. You should feel the stretch in the lower back. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat on the other side.
- Sit up straight with your legs extended straight out. Keeping your back straight, reach your hands toward your toes. Bending from the waist, lean forward as far as you can until you feel the stretch in the hamstrings. Hold for 20 seconds, release, and repeat.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Cross your right ankle over your left knee. Grasp behind your left knee and pull your legs toward your chest. Take care to keep the right knee away from the chest. Hold for 20-30 seconds, release, and repeat on both sides.
- Try the pigeon pose. This one is great for opening up your hips and stretching your backside. It can be hard on your knees if you do it wrong, though, so I advise you to check out this video. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_zPqA65Nok)
3. You aren’t making time for regular exercise.
There are some experts that will tell you core strength is key to avoiding lower back pain. It makes sense—strong abdominals help support the back.
But recent research has questioned the whole “do sit-ups to avoid back pain” theory. In a 2012 review, for example, scientists found that in the short-term, core exercises were better than general exercise at reducing back pain and disability. At six months and 12 months though—during a long-term follow-up—there were no differences between the two.
“[N]o significant long-term differences in pain severity were observed between patients who engaged in core stability exercise versus those who engaged in general exercise,” the researchers wrote.
Today’s research shows that by far, regular, general exercise is your best bet for avoiding back pain. A very recent review from Australia of over 6,000 studies, for example, found that exercise reduced risk of repeated low-back pain in the year following an episode by between 25 and 40 percent.
The type of exercise didn’t matter. Participants engaged in core strengthening, aerobic exercise, flexibility, and stretching. In addition, exercise outperformed other treatments, like back belts and shoe insoles.
“The end result,” reads a report in the New York Times, “was that if someone with a history of back pain exercised in a regular way, he or she was considerably less likely to be felled by more back pain within a year.”
This isn’t the first time scientists have come to this conclusion. A number of other studies have suggested that regular exercise protects against the development of back pain.
Action step: Move. This can be tough when you have a busy schedule, but try not to fall into the trap I did. Don’t wait until your body proves to you that it deserves your daily attention. Schedule time for exercise.
Head to the gym after work. Take a walk with your dog first thing in the morning. Join some friends for a walk during your lunch hour. Sign up for a cycling, zumba, or dance class. The type of exercise doesn’t matter. What is important is moving at least 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week.
Have you suffered from back pain as a result of too many hours at the computer? Please share your story.
Xue-Qiang Wang, et al., “A Meta-Analysis of Core Stability Exercise versus General Exercise for Chronic Low Back Pain,” PLoS One, 2012; 7(12):e52082, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3524111/.
Rae Ellen Bichell, “Forget the Gizmos: Exercise Works Best for Lower-Back Pain,” NPR, January 11, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/01/11/462366361/forget-the-gizmos-exercise-works-best-for-lower-back-pain.
Steffens D, et al., “Prevention of Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” JAMA Intern Med., February 1, 2016; 176(2):199-208, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26752509.
Colleen M. Story writes imaginative fiction and is also a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Her first book, Rise of the Sidenah, was recently honored in the North American Book Awards. Her first literary novel, Loreena’s Gift, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books in April 2016. She is also the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers. Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.