Pain-free Writing and Art

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W-Pain-free-Writing-1Here’s something for writers and illustrators to consider: the painful physical effects of your work. Don’t laugh. I kid you not.

You might think that the arm in the photo (mine, actually) looks pretty healthy. After years of making welded steel sculpture using all sorts of heavy equipment including angle grinders and such, spending a bunch of hours daily at a computer should be a breeze, right? However, for much of this past winter I had enough pain in a ring around the top of my right bicep that it would wake me up in the middle of the night demanding Aleve. That deep aching bothered me for months before I mentioned it to anyone.

At the gym when I tried to lift a four pound weight horizontally out from my right shoulder (90 degrees from the torso), I could not do it without pain. So what was causing this and how could I correct the problem?

The only thing I had done differently since the discomfort began was that I had spent significantly longer days on the computer. Could writing be the culprit? When I mentioned this suspicion to the gym instructor, she concurred. She said the weight of my arm while holding the mouse, and repeated clicking or typing without leaning my hands on the desk was stressing the muscles in my back between my shoulder blades. That was affecting my upper arm and shoulder. She recommended that I get away from the computer a few times a day and lie on my back with my arms in “hands up” position on the floor. Rest that way for a bit every so often, she said. After a few days that definitely helped.

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The exercise beasties have tips for you.

A friend recommended a massage therapist who is knowledgeable about physical therapies, so I went. She worked on my arm, digging right in, which felt great. She also gave me a few simple exercises and recommended that I rethink my posture and the set-up at my desk. She said I should return in a couple of weeks, but know what? I don’t need to.

I’ve changed the way I sit – making the seat higher and adding a footrest, I use a wrist rest when I type, put my wooden mousepad on my lap, and I even changed the way I sleep – no longer on my side with my arm unsupported. The problem that had plagued me for many months is gone.

Every writer and illustrator is susceptible to some form of discomfort if we lean over our drawing tables, read printed manuscript copy that’s not at the same angle as our monitors, stare at the screen or drawing paper at a fixed distance for hours, and don’t use good ergonomics.

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My drawing table raised to a better angle.

Do you have RSI or CVS?

Repetitive Strain/Stress Syndrome (RSI) is what may happen to your body as it did to mine. Back and muscle aches are obvious symptoms.

Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) results from stressing your eyes while working too many hours straight or not protecting your eyes from glare and other stressors. CSI can cause headaches, blurred vision and other problems. You can read more here.

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My retro double-timer.

Easy steps you can take

For your body:

  • Use a timer. Every half hour or hour, when it dings, get up from your desk. Go for a walk, look out the window, go up and down the stairs a few times. Your eyes, back and arms will be happier.
  • Examine your position in your workspace. Your forearms should be at right angles to your upper arms and your wrists straight forward when you work. If they are not, adjust your seat or desk.
  • Your feet should be flat on the floor and your thighs not pressing on the edge of your seat. Short people (like me!) can use a footrest to keep your feet at the right height. I now sit on a towel to make my seat the right height because it’s not adjustable.
  • Sit erectly with your neck straight. Don’t let your head come forward, since that stresses your neck. Adjust the angle of your drawing table as high as possible.
  • Use a foam wrist rest at your keyboard if your desk is not positioned so you can support your forearms as you work.
  • Put your mousepad on your lap so your arm is resting while using the mouse.
  • Better yet, stand while you work. Almitra Clay told me about a well-designed, inexpensive tabletop support called a StandStand. I bought the short 9″ one. Anthony Dobransky, a writer from Washington, writes standing up because it’s healthier, more active, leads to better posture and breathing. Also, standing allows him the freedom to act out gestures and stances for better prose descriptions.

    Almitra Clay photo of her StandStand.
    Almitra Clay photo of her StandStand.
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In my studio – windows and a document holder.

For your eyes:

  • Eye strain can cause dry eye, headaches, blurred vision and other issues, so take breaks to avoid these and other problems. Use that timer!
  • Position your workspace where you can look out a window regularly, exercising your distance vision.
  • Cut glare to ease your eyes. Pull a curtain or rotate your work surface or computer so the light is optimal without glare.
  • Use a document holder like this one. Or this other one. Or make one out of cardboard and duct tape!

    W-Desktop
    My desk-top computer, timer, foam wrist rest, and a hard mouse pad I can put on my lap.

More facts about ergonomics, if you need them.

While researching this line of positional health hazards writers and illustrators suffer from, I came across this article on a tangent topic – diseases that plagued specific writers. These make muscle discomfort seem like a non-issue.

Being good to our bodies helps the ideas flow and maximizes productivity. I am relieved to have resolved the discomfort obstacle and now full speed ahead!

Do you have other solutions to ergonomics or positional issues while writing or creating art?

25 comments

  1. This is great, Joyce…I’m going to read this more carefully. Last year, I started gardening again and, forgetting that I was 20 years older than the last time I gardened, I overdid it…bending, lifting, kneeling. My right knee and left shoulder were out of commission. Fortunately, the doc recommended physical therapy after a round of Ibuprofen…and YAY, I regained full use of knee and shoulder with no pain or discomfort. But I do tend to sit at the computer for hours at a time. ;( So I will take these tips to heart.
    Another great rule for staving off eye strain is the 20/20/20 rule…for every 20 minutes of computer/screen time (kids who play ipad games, etc), stop and look 20 feet in the distance for 20 seconds. This helps rest the close eye muscles as your eye focuses with the far eye muscles. 🙂

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    1. Vivian, hello. I love the 20/20/20 idea. Hadn’t heard that one before, so thanks for the valuable tip! If you want to try standing for part of the time maybe consider getting the StandStand. My sister just ordered one too. I am impressed with the design and portability. It’s only a suggestion – I have nothing to do with the company.
      And it’s great that your knees are normal! If we listen to our bodies, they usually tell us what they need.

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  2. Joyce, thanks so much for such a thorough and informative post! A couple of years ago, in the weeks leading up to Frozen Shoulder, Part II, I rearranged my home office to get my computer off a cart with a keyboard tray (where my hands had to perch in midair) and onto a folding table where I could rest them while I typed and moused. It didn’t prevent the frozen shoulder (which has no known cause) but it sure did help during recovery and ever since. Bonus: the table faces a window where I can look out on the garden. Speaking of eye strain, I’ve found the difference between happy eyes and sore eyes, for me, can be as little as a 5% difference in the brightness of the computer screen. Dimmer is definitely better, up to a point.

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    1. As before, I’m so sorry about that awful shoulder problem you have, but your clever strategy about the table at least minimized it somewhat. Great point about the brightness level!
      And yes, the garden view, while of course good for exercising your distance vision, is also helpful for the heart because we all need the beauty of nature.

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      1. Mostly, the garden view is my husband’s car in the driveway, because I have to shove the computer over to the side to clear the path for our cat. But yes, it helps! Even more so when I set up on the screen porch.

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  3. Before I bought that StandStand, I started having pain in the back of my ankles, particularly first thing in the mornings, when the tendons were being stretched. I had remembered hearing that women who wear high heels too much could cause those tendons to shorten, causing similar pain. So I started paying attention to my feet. It turned out I had developed a bad habit of propping my heels against the kegs of my chair as I typed, keeping my toes pointed down as if I were wearing very high heels. I dropped that habit and the pain went away. I’m hoping the standing desk prevents other such problems. Thanks for the good article!

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    1. Wow, that’s crazy. That ankle tendon issue is something that would not usually crop up in a discussion of the physical problems caused by writing, but it’s so understandable. It also sure makes me wonder about those fashionable high heels lots of women wear. I’m really grateful that you told me about the StandStand because it is beautifully designed and comes apart to carry so conveniently. I can see that you listen to your body, as I try to, and that’s half the battle!

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  4. Oh my gosh, Joyce! Thank you so much for this post! What a sneaky computer culprit! I have a MacBook only, and I am constantly looking down. I have raised it in the past, but then my arms are unsupported to type. How do you handle that with a laptop? Thanks for your help? The visuals in your article really help.

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    1. That’s definitely harder, but I’m sure there’s a solution. I have a Microsoft Surface I needed when my mother was sick and in rehab for months, so I could work while she was napping. On that device I can change the screen angle enough. I don’t know if you can do that on a MacBook? If not, creativity will win out. Maybe try putting a book under the front edge. That will tilt the screen back while also giving your hands a place to rest in front. Maybe once you see what works best, make a simple wooden or cardboard thing to keep it at the optimum angle and height.

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    1. Oh wow, Kirsti. that’s terrible! I hope eventually it will be totally corrected. I’ve learned in Pilates that slow, gentle motion exercises are the best thing for those who have back pain (thankfully I don’t!), so maybe a similar, gentle flexing movement would help your wrists? Man, we need our hands for everything!

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    1. Hi Rosi. Your problem sure sounds familiar to me! A session with a theraputic massage professional would be helpful and he/she may have additonial exercises or other helpful tips. I hope all of this banishes your problem!

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    1. My pleasure, Carol. I do hope it helps. I heard from Susan Paradis, also a writer/illustrator, via e-mail and she said she’s had all of the symptoms described above. Obviously many of us don’t give attention to our work set-ups. It’s such an easy thing to fix. Hopefully from now on your writing will be pain-free!

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  5. This post takes me back to my roots in business when, managing a team of programmers who sat at their computers all day, I had to ensure proper ergonomics. You’re spot on, Joyce. I suspect you’ll get lots of comments from the many of us suffering from poor writing postures. By the way, nice muscles!

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    1. Wow, programming must be rife with body issues. they have to stare at the screen all day. Ugh. Not for me. I sidestep that as much as possible. For example, I always print out the subs from my critique group buddies and mark them up there before transferring to the screen. And while doing my own edits too. That’s why I use a document holder. It gives my eyes a break.
      Oh, and if you want muscles, come to my welding studio and I’ll show you how to build your own!

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  6. I’m dealing with a pinched nerve in my neck. The pain runs down my right arm. It’s probably due to writing standing up with my head angled down. Taking steps to fix problem. Thanks for your post.

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    1. Hi ManjuBeth. That sounds awful, but very correctable. The head is a heavy part of the body, so its weight is a big strain on the neck. Writing standing up is a great idea because it keeps your body more active, but maybe you need to raise your computer. It sounds like you are already doing something about it. I hope you feel 100% very soon so your writing or artwork will be more comfortable…

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