Tuesday, November 8, 2011

When Writing Becomes A Literal Pain in the Neck

We don’t always take care of ourselves as we ought to. Sometimes it takes a smack upside the head (or in my case, a week of down time with severe neck strain) to get us to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. I should have known better—I deal with workers debilitated by repetitive injury every day. But we get busy. We push beyond our limits. We never consider that the neck and shoulder pain we get from just typing can be as damaging as being in an auto accident.

Computer work requires the user to perform highly repetitive motions for prolonged periods of time in basically the same position. Doing these tasks continuously for over several hours exposes muscles and tendons in the hands, necks and shoulders to hundreds, even thousands of repetitions that can lead to wear-and-tear and damaging injury.

By taking the ergonomic preventative maintenance steps below, you can stay productive while protecting against carpal tunnel, repetitive strain injury (RSI) and other pains in the neck.

  1. Give Yourself a Break: Reduce the stress placed on the body during an extended stretch at the keyboard by streeeeeeetching to loosen up muscles after a long period in the same position. Every twenty minutes or so, take a break from the screen to do shoulder rolls and neck stretches. Every hour, get out of your chair and walk around to get the blood circulating.
  2. Room to Work: Keep your work area clean, clear and area free of things that restrict movement so you’re not reaching over, under, around and bumping into things. Have the space to use your mouse with either the right or the left hand. Make sure you have proper air circulation and that you aren’t seated under vents or in front of fans that blow right on you.
  3. Shed Some Light on the Situation: Bright light or glare from overhead lights, desk lamps and windows can lead to eye problems. Glare can cause eyestrain, squinting and headaches, so adjust monitor screen height or tilt it so your light source isn’t reflected (to test, turn off monitor and if you can see your reflection in it, you’ve got glare). Also tweak your screen brightness and font size for vision comfort.
  4. Posturing: Listen to your mother and sit up straight. Hunching leads to back pain, neck strain and shoulder tension. Your head, neck and torso should be naturally aligned when seated. One of the biggest causes of neck, upper back and shoulder pain is what’s called a “Forward Head.” Tilting or craning your head and neck forward is like supporting a bowling ball with the muscles of your upper back and puts strain on your cervical discs, causing a tension pain across your shoulders and often headaches, and even rotator cuff pain or impingement and reduced cervical lordosis (I love to throw technical jargon from the day job around—and I know how to spell it all, too!). When you try to overcompensate by forcing your head back and tilting your chin up, it only makes matters worse. Check your posture by standing with your back against a wall. With correct spinal alignment, your heels, butt, shoulders and back of your head should all be making contact. Try a Pectoral Stretch and a Trapezius Stretch to loosen and strengthen tight muscles.
  5. Hand Position: Keep arms bent at a 90-degree angle with elbows near body while typing and wrists and hands even with elbows. Use the keyboard more than the mouse by incorporating keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl+S to save, Ctrl+P to print.
  6. Take a Seat: The best desk is sturdy and has a low keyboard tray. The best chair has comfortable arm rests (but don’t depend upon them), with lumbar support that fits your low back, and adjusts so that feet rest fully on the floor and knees are at a 90-degree angle. It should have a smaller seat so there are a few inches between the inner knee and the edge of the seat. The back should be high enough to reach the shoulder blades. Align the monitor, keyboard and mouse so you aren’t twisting your back or neck as you work. Your monitor should be positioned an arm’s length away and centered in your line of vision with sight line about 3” below top of screen so you’re not straining your neck to look up at it. The keyboard should sit flat, not elevated in the back, so your wrists aren’t bent. Don’t let your hands rest on the keyboard while you type. If you use a laptop, think about a wireless keyboard on the pull out tray and a second monitor.
  7. Go Through the Motions: Watch out for movements that strain the body, especially if they’re repetitive i.e. bending, reaching, twisting to look at your work, get envelopes and letterhead, or, heaven forbid, watch TV over your left shoulder (darn that HGTV!)
  8. Change it Up: Vary your tasks throughout the day to bring different muscles into play and give your body a chance to recover. Mix non-computer work in with your keyboarding. File, do your bills, take a brisk ride on your elliptical, vacuum, walk to the mailbox, sit in a different chair so your posture is altered.
Sometimes that work marathon can’t be avoided. What do you do when long hours spent at the keyboard bring that dull, burning, or sharp pain across your upper back and shoulders? Rest is the first remedy. Your muscles are sore and tight because they’re not getting proper circulation. Exercise with gentle stretches that strengthen the back, shoulders and stomach. A strong core improves posture and reduces chance of injury and pain. Practice proper Posture by avoiding slumping, slouching and forward head position. Try OTC Medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (Motrin/Advil/Aleve) to reduce swelling of aggravated areas. Heat alternating with Ice brings fast relief. Start with ice cubes or frozen peas in a towel for 20 minutes followed by a heating pad for 20 minutes (keep both from direct contact with your skin!) to speed up healing.

For long term care of your body, sleep on a firm mattress and try a cervical support pillow or even feather pillow you can shape to fit the curve of your neck. Lying flat on your back is often recommended for forward head problems.

I don’t pretend to be a doctor, so see one if pain persists, especially if it’s accompanied by weakness in arms or legs, numbness in arms, legs, chest or belly, or loss of bodily functions. They can diagnosis a more significant injury such as torn tendons or herniated disc.

Bottom line: Take care of yourself. Be aware of good ergonomic health practices. And give yourself a break when you need one. Your neck and shoulders will thank you!


  1. Excellent post, Nancy, and one I need to pay attention to. One thing I need to remember is to do the exercises I need for my back. I either need to do them here at home or at the gym. Either place is fine...I just need to DO IT! Maris Soule

  2. Great tips, Nancy. Thanks for the timely reminder to take care of the only body we have. I'd like to keep mine around a while longer, so I'll get up now and walk to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and take a break. Does that count as exercise?

  3. Excellent tips, Nancy. In correlation with your tip about preventing (relieving) eye strain, I just read about an idea called 20-20-20. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. As writers, we tend to get wrapped up in our writing and forget all the things we're supposed to do. Thanks for the reminder to take care of ourselves.