Writing can be a demanding physical activity – especially when it goes on for days on end. Authors spend LOTS of time at computer keyboards and with pen and paper too, endless hours of repetitive movement with perhaps not the greatest posture, factors that can take a toll on various body parts. But writers have plots to resolve, characters to develop and deadlines to meet, so we push through and get the job done. And we deal with discomforts best we can.
The physical nature of writing mostly involves sitting –- as fingers fly over the keys, wrists may be angled; shoulders may be tight and hunched, necks forward, eyes straining to see what’s on the screen; and backs, hips, legs and feet must support those all-important writing muscles in the hands, fingers and eyes. Not to mention the physiological needs of the brain (that would be another blog entirely)!
Yet do we take breaks often, walk around, stretch our legs and backs, shake our hands and arms? Not regularly, if the creative urge is in force and the deadline is near. Are the chair and desk a proper fit, with the back well supported, spine balanced, arms relaxed, feet on the floor? Not always. Even in the best ergonomic circumstances, writers could be leaning and slumping while typing at lightning speed. We put in long hours in the same chair, go without sleep, and fuel ourselves with caffeine, further tightening stressed systems and muscles.
Recently the Wenches were chatting about this and discussing what helps us. It all started when Wench Anne’s doctor put her into wrist braces after the havoc wrought by a recent deadline blitz. “I gave myself tendonitis/carpal tunnel, so have been staying off the computer for the most part,” she told us one day.
Most of the Wenches—Anne, Mary Jo, Susan, Nicola, Pat, Andrea, Joanna and Wench Whipster Sherrie-- have developed physical glitches from long writing hours. Mary Jo recommends the liberal use of wrist braces. “With all the deadlines I've faced in the last year or two, my wrists are doing some serious complaining," she says. "Some days I wear a brace on each wrist and another on each elbow. Susan's son, Dr. Josh, made a good suggestion when I hit him up for free advice—wear a wrist brace to bed because at night the wrist can get bent in ways that exacerbate the nerve damage. I gave it a try, and saw an immediate improvement. Still a ways to go, but haven't had any bad episodes since then. Now wrist braces are going into my travel kit as well as a pair on my bedside table!” Wrist support at night is a first line therapy—if wrists are still weak and troubled, more help may be necessary.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is the bane of writers -- an inflammation in the sheath that carries nerves from the wrist into the hand, it can result in pain and even long term damage. It can occur in people who perform prolonged repetitive motion, resulting in repetitive stress injury, or RSI. Other diseases and conditions can bring on carpal issues too, but keyboard use is a frequent cause in writers.
Symptoms “most often occur in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and half of the ring finger. If you have problems with your other fingers but your little finger is fine, this may be a sign that you have carpal tunnel syndrome. A different nerve gives feeling to the little finger. You may first notice symptoms at night. You may be able to get relief by shaking your hand,” reports WebMD’s page on carpal tunnel. “Tendon inflammation resulting from repetitive work, such as uninterrupted typing, can also cause carpal tunnel symptoms,” states medicine.net.
Wench Nicola says she sometimes has RSI issues from keyboard use, and is getting treatment for it. Mary Jo is trying contrast therapy, recommended to her by a writer who has found relief this way for wrist and hand problems. A physical therapy technique, contrast therapy involves alternating hot and cold water immersion for hands and wrists (and is used for other injuries). The changing temperatures can reduce swelling and improve circulation and therefore healing.
Of working on her laptop with her wrists at awkward angles, Wench Joanna says: "Remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford points to a spot on his elbow and says, 'This doesn't hurt?' I'm like that, except I don't have a spot on the elbow. The other aches go away, but the wrists keep at this ouching thing and I feel very stupid. Is there a Carpal-Tunnel-Stupid Syndrome? That's what I have...so now I wear a wrist brace when I sit down to work for a long time. Everyone who sees this thinks I have injured myself in some accident, so I try to look like I ride horses or ski or engage in other enterprises more interesting than staring at a computer screen."
My own experience with carpal-tunnel-like symptoms -- numbness in the hands and fingers, pain in wrist as well as elbow and shoulder -- originated in a pinched nerve in the cervical vertebrae, affecting nerves feeding into the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers. Allergies prevented me from taking anti-inflammatory meds, so I went to a chiropractor, whose treatments released the pressure in my neck. Years ago I learned wrist and hand exercises that help the overworked wrist and hands, and I try to do them fairly regularly. They gently stretch and align the wrists to keep the nerve sheaths in good shape. Yoga has also helped me, along with other stretching movements.
Anne also finds that exercises help; some very good routines can be found in this YouTube video.
“Just now I’m in wrist bands and splints galore after seeing a hand rehab specialist," Anne says, "little thumb splints to wear day and night for a few weeks and hand/wrist splints for sleeping in and spending time in during the day. Look silly, feel like a martial arts person, but it's remarkably comfortable.”
Our Blog Whipster Sherrie also gives thumbs up (as it were) to wrist braces night and day when needed. She prefers rigid wrist braces to wear at night. “Another suggestion is to make sure your keyboard is flat,” she says. “Raising the back of the keyboard forces you to cock your wrists instead of keeping them straight, which is very straining.”
Mary Jo and myself, among other Wenches, are devoted users of ergonomic style keyboards. Mary Jo’s keyboard is a nifty little thing that is split in two without the number keypad, and adjusts to hand span. I use a curved keyboard that helps keep my hands and wrists at a good angle. And Mary Jo and Pat use trackball mouses (mice?), further taking strain off the hands. I notice that using my laptop, with its plain straight keyboard, can trigger wrist issues, while my curved keyboard at the desk relieves my wrist discomfort.
Jo Beverley has taken keyboard and typing comfort a further step by using the Dvorak key system.”The Dvorak keyboard layout has the keys in different places,” she explains. “The QWERTY one was designed for early typewriters, and while it does put
least used keys in out-of-the-way places and common ones and patterns in the middle, it also had to deal with the type on the long arms sweeping up to hit the paper. Keystrokes that frequently happen next to each other need to be separated on the arms or they tend to clash. But Dvorak simply arranges the keys for least hand movement when typing common language such as English.Once one's learned it, it makes using an ordinary keyboard very fiddly!” Jo says. Just about any computer can now be switched to Dvorak.
In the midst of our email discussion about wrists and such, Wench Pat Rice broke her wrist and is now dealing with that while writing. “Not sure what I can add to the ergonomic discussion aside from don't break your wrist!” she says. “I find a trackball is my best friend, but one geared for the right hand doesn't work so hot on the left. I've also learned that a Dvorak key system is built into MS operating systems, even a left-handed one. Keys can be popped off the board and moved around to work with Dvorak -– the key system makes soooo much more sense than stretching our fingers to reach keys.”
In terms of the larger ergonomic issues a writer faces, Sherrie claims “I am the queen of comfort!” She converted a huge recliner into a desk chair by attaching wheels. Now she reclines at the desk with her keyboard in her lap—and it’s handy for watching movies on her large monitor as well, so Sherrie’s all set for desk comfort!
Mary Jo, Jo Beverley and myself have all invested in Herman Miller Aeron chairs. Wench Andrea adds "I write too slowly to have wrist problems, but I'm saving my pennies for an Aeron chair because my back does occasionally flare up, and I've heard such wonderful things about it."
The Aeron is not only ergonomically aligned and comfortable –- it’s also a beautifully designed object that is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. I love my Aeron, which I got in the smallest of three sizes. This chair fits me, and I'm under five feet tall. For many short people, most furniture is too big, causing back strain from the feet hanging down, and so on. Aeron comes in sizes A, B and C; size "A" has a shorter, narrower seat depth and lower arm height. I also had the legs of my desk shortened (thanks, dh!). Now the physical stress of writing is much improved.
The Wenches have each managed to create a good level of physical comfort and support as we write. We've had to do that. Ergonomics can save writing careers. Wrist braces, exercises, Dvorak keyboards, Aeron chairs, customized desks and other measures are heaven sent for career authors -- and for anyone else who spends long hours at the computer.
Do you spend lots of time in front of a computer or laptop too? What have you found that helps you? We'd love to know your experience with wrist strain and other writer-related hazards.
(<-- one of the books that challenged my wrists and back!)