3 Reasons Your Writing Routine Will Land You On the Floor

by Colleen M. Story@colleen_m_storydownload (3)

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.

Sources

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 C Storyhealth 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.

 

 

 

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22 thoughts on “3 Reasons Your Writing Routine Will Land You On the Floor

  1. Colleen, thanks so much for posting today. I actually emailed Colleen and asked her to do a post for me today as a reminder as we’re still in the first part of 2016.

    As I’ve mentioned here before, I had a terrible bout of back pain in 2014. The sports doctor who treated me said my poor habits while writing was the direct cause. My favorite place to write was the sofa…laptop on my lap and feet on the coffee table. Maybe it was comfortable (for years!) but it sure backfired later on….resulting in months of physical therapy.

    I’ve got much better practices now, as a writer, and am a lot more conscious of my posture and where I’m writing. Thanks again for this today, Colleen! Such an important reminder.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth—I enjoyed doing the post. Sounds like we had very similar experiences! Hopefully we can help other writers to avoid the pain we went through. Thanks again and thanks for all you do for writers!

  2. This is so important for all writers to understand. Thank you, both, for this. It’s critical to get regular exercise, find comfortable and safe ways to sit while we are working, and so on. I think diet matters, too. And you’re right; paying attention to your body’s signals is really important.

    1. Thanks, Margot. Yes, diet helps, and the biggest thing seems to be drinking water. I learned it actually helps keep the vertebrae lubricated and spacious—even a little dehydration can cause the pain to flare up.

  3. My back was hurting for the past few months and although I exercise, I realized it was from sitting too much. Now I’m moving more and feeling better. (Much to my husband’s relief – now we don’t need to spend money on a new mattress.)

    1. Oh I’m glad you got moving before something worse happened, but I’d say please convince your husband on the mattress anyway! After the accident I ghostwrote a book on back pain for a client, and learned that what we sleep on is extremely important to avoiding pain and problems. I got a wonderful mattress (though not cheap) and it has helped tremendously, plus I’ve found it’s still more comfortable than anything else I’ve tried even after 15 years (quality counts!). Good luck!

  4. Excellent post. I know exactly how you feel. The same thing happened to me, but mine was muscle related. I stretch every day now and don’t let myself sit longer than one hour at a time. I really want to invest in one of those standing desks. (Though my cat might be angry at the loss of my lap, if I do!) The back is a tricky thing and the pain can surprise someone who has never had it.

    1. Surprise is the truth! (ha) Great idea on the standing desk (I have a post on Writing and Wellness about the different brands if you’re curious), though lately I’ve just been using a file box on the table for my laptop and it works really well. Gives me a place to work standing up for awhile without a lot of expense. Best of luck with your choice.

  5. I experienced something similar, except I was barely 20. Same deal–bad posture while typing for hours at the computer. My vertebrae in my upper back got out of whack, and I had a stabbing pain in my lungs. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t raise my right arm, couldn’t sleep. I felt like Frodo. I finally went to my parents’ chiropractor, who worked on me for weeks to get my back straight again. I have to wear a lift now, and not sit for so long.

  6. Hi Elizabeth and Colleen – such an important message – and I now need to get up and get moving …

    I will be back to read properly, make some notes and learn from both your experiences … backs are crucial to our lives and living comfortably .. cheers Hilary

  7. I’ve never gotten back pain from sitting at a computer, but every once in a while I’ll do something to my back and then it’ll take a couple of days for the pain to go away. I’m trying to do better about not sitting in front of the computer for long stretches of time. Thanks for the tips, Colleen.

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