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.