Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Writers' Wednesday - Look after yourself

This Wednesday, Fiona Harper takes a personal look at why we should look after ourselves when we write.

Last February, I came out of the doctor's office with a huge problem. I was two weeks away from a deadline, 5000 words away from finishing my book, and the doctor had told me not to type! Time to panic? I think so!

The cause? Repetitive strain injury, or RSI.

I had believed myself safe. I had a fairly well set up workstation, especially after I had got a desk with a keyboard shelf and was using a wireless keyboard rather than the laptop keyboard to type on . Blithely, I to that if I was going to get RSI I would see the warning signals and I would slow down. But I didn’t get any warning signals.

In my day job, I took over doing the accounts - which meant lots of very repetitive use of the mouse and numberpad, and very few breaks. Combine that with a looming deadline and a week where the steam fairly poured off my keyboard and, come Sunday, I had intense pain in my right wrist and arm, followed by tingling and numbness in my right hand – and it just got worse over the next week, even though I stopped typing and using the mouse immediately. I started using my left hand to move the mouse, but after a while I just developed the same symptoms in my left hand instead!

Four months on, nothing seemed to be improving and I started to read up on the subject and asked my GP to refer me to a physiotherapist. It turns out that ligaments and tendons take a long time to heal once stressed and there was not going to be any quick fixes. I started to think of my recovery in terms of months rather than weeks, and started to realise that the problem was not just my wrists, but they way I sat and that stiffness in my neck muscles was actually responsible for a lot of my symptoms.

Over the summer, I decided to be more proactive about finding a solution to the problem. Setting up an ergonomic workstation was key to relieving my symptoms:

  • Since the problem seemed to be partly linked to mouse use, I invested (£70!) in an ergonomic mouse. Basically, the mouse lets me have my hand on its side. No rotating of the forearm and no flexing of the wrist to use it. Worst of all, I had been resting the heel of my hand on the desk as I used the mouse; now my hand sits on the base of my joystick mouse in perfect alignment with my lower arm. It took all of five minutes to get used to and I love it!

  • I dropped the feet down on my keyboard so it was as flat as possible. Although I had had my arms in the right position, I had been flexing my wrists slightly when I typed, which puts maximum stress on the tendons and ligaments.

  • I bought a proper office chair with adjustable height, tilt and backrest to help me sit at the right height for my keyboard, with proper support for my lower back.

  • Then I bought a footstool so the tops of my legs were horizontal while I worked.

  • I also bought a stand for my laptop, because you are supposed to have your monitor at eye level and I was getting neck ache looking down at the laptop screen.

Within weeks I saw a dramatic improvement in my symptoms! I know it cost me a bit of money (£260) to get myself set up right, but it was a small price to pay just to be able to be pain-free and to be able to start to type for brief periods (emails and such like).

My recovery is ongoing. I’ve had a bit of a relapse recently – partly due to a busy stressful time at my day job and partly due to me getting complacent and returning to a few bad habits - but I type more than using the voice software now and the wrist pain has virtually disappeared.

So, my advice is this:

  • Take breaks! I now have a kitchen timer on my desk that beeps at me every thirty minutes and I get up, move around and do the exercises the physio gave me for a few minutes. The hidden bonus to this is that I rarely stop at the end of a scene, which leaves me raring to go when I get back to work, rather than twiddling my thumbs thinking about how to start the next scene/chapter.

  • Make sure your workstation is not causing you hidden stress! I know it’s boring but, believe me, you do not want to get to the point where your body rebels and goes on strike!

  • Listen to your body and do not ignore any pain or stiffness, tingling and numbness.

There are plenty of good resources out there on the Internet. Try the RSIa website; it has plenty of fact sheets and resources. Particularly useful is this fact sheet on ergonomic workstations.

Fiona's latest release "Break Up to Make Up" is available online at eHarlequin, Mills& and Amazon.

To find out more about her and the inspiration for her books visit her website and her blog.


And some lovely news to add! A brand new heroine has entered our midst. Our very own Pink Heart Society editor, Ally Blake, has had a beautiful baby girl! Mum and bub are both doing well.

Congrats Ally!!! From all of us at PHS.


  1. Great advice, Fiona. Having suffered similarly myself, I am now extremely careful.
    I got nowhere in the space of a year with the NHS but was extremely lucky in that my sister is a holistic therapist and managed to sort me out.
    I have another tip.Heavy shopping trolleys and carrier bags can aggravate the nerves around my neck and this spreads all the way down to my hands-it takes days to clear up. So avoid the 'trigger' and get it delivered!Ocado and Sainsburys are pretty good and the charge is small or nothing midweek.
    This way I can still haul around children, push swings and do the tip runs without lying awake all night with prickling hands.

  2. Hi Fiona

    I've been a long-time RSI sufferer since working at Radio Times (a UK TV listings mag for those non-Brits out there) in my 20s. We used to have 12 hours days on press nights, sometimes working till midnight to get the pages through and nearly everyone in the office had RSI within two months of them introducing the computers! What a total nightmare. It took nearly six months before I was able to use a keyboard again.

    Since then I've always been super careful about breaks and ergonomics. I also try to swim four or five times a week, have regular back massages and see an osteopath twice a year or so. If the pain gets acute (which is hasn't for me in years) I found acupuncture fantastic. All of this is costly, so if you can avoid getting it in the first place, all the better. Your advice is invaluable. Good luck with your recovery.

  3. Good luck with your recovery, Fiona.

    And congrats to Ally!

  4. Congratulations, Ally!

    Wonderful news!


  5. Congratulations ALLY - what fantastic news!

  6. Congratulations Ally! Best wishes to you and your family.