Writer Got Back…Pain

OK. Now that my title has got that Sir Mix-A-Lot song stuck in your head, I can safely assure you that I’m not writing a blog post on writers’ butts this morning.

No, this morning’s post is on something even nearer and dearer to my heart—my actual back.

Last Monday morning, just after I hit the publish button on my “Why You’re Not a Writer” post, I completely locked up my lower back. I mean it was toast.

Here’s how it went down. I was just getting out of the shower, had my leg up on a stool, and was drying it off when I coughed. And that’s all she wrote. I felt a sharp twinge in my lower back, I hit the deck, and the spasms kicked in.

It hurt like hell.

I spent seven hours on the floor Monday morning. I could hardly move without pain, and standing up was out of the question. I tried to get some work done, but it hurt too much to have my head propped up to read the screen. I was completely immobilized.

As the week went on, I slowly got better. Today, I’m still stiff, but I’m able to be up and about, and I can sit at my desk again with relatively little pain.

But I learned a valuable lesson this week: As a writer, you’re nothing without your back.

We don’t really think about back health until we’re forced to. So I want to share with you a few things I’ve learned this week that will hopefully help you avoid a painful experience like mine. Because when you have a healthy back you can focus better on your writing and your family—all good things, no?

Your Office Chair is Killing You

I friend of mine on Twitter tweeted out an interesting article this week from Bloomberg Businessweek, entitled “Your Office Chair is Killing You”. The article states: “New research in the diverse fields of epidemiology, molecular biology, biomechanics, and physiology is converging toward a startling conclusion: Sitting is a public-health risk. And exercising doesn’t offset it.”

The point of the article, we’re not meant to sit for long periods of time. In fact it wasn’t normal for people to be sitting in chairs all day until about 150 years ago. Before that, 90 percent of all work was agricultural. People were on their feet all day. In fact, the evolutionary history of humans is one that gears us to be on our feet, or on our back, most of the day.

And it turns out that much of our society’s back problems may be due to our addiction to sitting:

The chair you’re sitting in now is likely contributing to the problem. “Short of sitting on a spike, you can’t do much worse than a standard office chair,” says Galen Cranz, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She explains that the spine wasn’t meant to stay for long periods in a seated position. Generally speaking, the slight S shape of the spine serves us well. “If you think about a heavy weight on a C or S, which is going to collapse more easily? The C,” she says. But when you sit, the lower lumbar curve collapses, turning the spine’s natural S-shape into a C, hampering the abdominal and back musculature that support the body. The body is left to slouch, and the lateral and oblique muscles grow weak and unable to support it.

This, in turn, causes problems with other parts of the body. “When you’re standing, you’re bearing weight through the hips, knees, and ankles,” says Dr. Andrew C, Hecht, co-chief of spinal surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “When you’re sitting, you’re bearing all that weight through the pelvis and spine, and it puts the highest pressure on your back discs. Looking at MRIs, even sitting with perfect posture causes serious pressure on your back.”

The alternative to chairs? Apparently that best thing you can do is stand at your desk and work. Another good compromise is a stool that let’s you half sit and half stand, putting some pressure burden on your legs and easing the pressure on your back. It’s uncomfortable at first, but after a couple weeks, muscles that are designed to stabilize you without getting tired get back into shape and make standing for long periods of time much easier.

Stretch Often

If you’re averse to trying out the stand-while-you-work option, you should at least get up frequently. As a writer, I know how easy it is to get engrossed in a project. Before you know it, three or four hours are gone. No writer I know likes to fill their day with interruptions once the creative juices are flowing.

But getting up every hour to stretch and walk around can do wonders for your back and lead to a much healthier body over all. Plus that next great idea for your project might come while you’re doing your stretch time out.

Here are some great stretches my doctor gave me (along with some muscle relaxers…God bless her heart).

Correct Your Posture

A lot of back problems come from incorrect posture while standing. Having incorrect posture (which I found out I do) can put undue pressure on your lower back or your shoulders. When you stand, you should be slightly bent at the knees, and a straight line should go from the top of your head, through your shoulders and your hips, down to your feet. Your abdominal muscles should be engaged in centering your core as well. It should look like this:

When you’re standing, be consciously aware of your posture and correct it if you find anything amiss. Eventually good posture will become second nature, but it’s work at first.

Exercise

One of the best ways to prevent back pain is to do back and core exercises everyday. This slideshow from the Mayo Clinic gives some great back exercises you can do at home to strengthen your back in just 15 minutes each day.

I start physical therapy today. I’m looking forward to correcting my bad back habits and living a healthier pain-free life. It will make me a better writer, dad, and husband.

How about you? Have you or do you have back pain? How has it affected your writing, and what are you doing to combat it?