The Writer’s Curse: Carpel-Tunnel Syndrome and Other Aches and Pains

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Spend enough time at your desk writing, and your body will start complaining. It could take the form of muscle ache, swelling in the joints, a buzzing feeling in your elbow, or a crippling pain as you place your fingers in position to type your first words.

It’ll take several forms — carpel-tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, bursitis, or arthritis — but it all means the same in the end: medical treatment or risk worse injury that could leave you crippled and unable to work and risk a decline in revenue.

The body is amazingly resilient, but it has its limits. Fortunately, there are things you can do before it tells you that it’s had enough.

1. Exercise: This is the first and most important line of defense. Remember the phrase “use it or lose it”? It applies to your body. It is designed to be only as strong as it needs to be. If you were working in a warehouse slinging boxes eight hours a day, it will, over time, build up muscle and become better coordinated to do the job.

When you’re sitting at a desk in an office, it’ll be strong enough to get you in the car, drive to work, walk up the stairs, get coffee and snacks in the canteen, go out for lunch, sit at your desk, and get you home.

But that’s a heavy workout compared to becoming a full-time writer at home, where the longest trek you could make all day is to the coffee pot in the kitchen and back. And bathroom breaks.

Under those conditions, your body will grow slack and weak in a hurry.

I learned that when I transitioned from my newspaper job to life as a fulltime writer. Most of my first two years were spent at my desk. I exercised very little, so focused I was with getting books out. I didn’t realize what effect it had on my body.

Then the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop held its day-long convention. I was one of the guest authors, so I loaded my four boxes of books into the car and drove over to the site. There, I hoisted two of them, as I usually did, and walked across the parking lot.

By the time I reached the curb outside the building, I had to set the boxes down. The strength had gone out of my arms. As I shook the feeling back into them, they flopped a bit like wet noodles, and my stomach roiled at the realization that if I had tried to make the building, I would have dropped the boxes.

That’s how little strength I had left.

That’s when I realized something had to be done. Several years of regular exercise later, and my strength has come back. No one will ever confuse me with The Rock — I’m much closer to Gravel — but I can handle my merchandise without risking collapse.

2. Flexibility: The same thing that can happen to your muscles will also happen to the flexibility in your hands, wrists, and joints. Just as exercise can help keep your muscles toned, it can also help keep your joints limber.

There are exercises that will stretch the tendons gently and keep them flexible.

a. Stretch your arms in front of you. Flex the wrists so the hands go up as far as they can go, then down. Up, down, up, down. Do this ten times.

b. Rotate your hands in one direction ten times, then in the other direction ten times.

c. Hold your palms level, fingers spread. Rotate them as far as they can go in one direction, then in the other direction. Ten times.

3. Ergonomics: In plain English, making sure your desk and chair are adjusted for your height and your wrists are angled properly over the keyboard to keep you from getting the dreaded carpel-tunnel syndrome.

“What’s so stressful about writing?” I can hear you ask. “It’s not digging ditches.”

Try this experiment. Stand up. In that position, lift one foot off the ground. Don’t move it forward, just lift it off the ground, say, an inch.

Hold that position. If you’re like me, after a few minutes, you’ll start feeling the strain. Not much, but definitely there.

When you’re typing, you’re holding your hands in unnatural positions. They’re raised slightly, angled slightly, kept in the air, resting lightly on the keys. They may be angled back from your wrists, which are resting (but not entirely) on one of those spongy rests.

If you’ve been writing for awhile, check the set of your shoulders, or have someone massage your shoulders a bit. You may find them surprisingly stiff.

Imagine what that must do to your body, day after day over several years. This is what you have to counter, with exercise, with flexibility training, with sitting yourself properly, with frequent breaks, and,if need be, with compression gloves and braces.

4. Gloves and Braces: If you start feeling pain in your hands, you may need to consider seeing a doctor.

Important note: I am not a doctor. I cannot diagnose your situation. I can’t even give you guidelines to go by. The choice is up to you. I can only observe that people have different tolerances. I spent more than two decades editing copy on computers. I have been typing since I learned to touch-type in junior high school. My hands are in good condition. My wife took up writing seriously enough that within 18 months she had written several hundred thousand words, and she needs compression gloves and braces. There is no way of telling what will happen to you.

Fortunately, if you have to develop problems with your hands and wrists,there are solutions to try before considering surgery.

Compression gloves have been used to give temporary relief to sufferers of arthritis, and to those who do a lot of fine handwork, such as sewing, quilting, and embroidering. These are gloves designed to slip tightly over your hands. They come in a variety of styles, including some that cover the entire hand and others that leave the fingertips free, and can be found in drugstores, orthopedic shops, and online. You don’t need a prescription to use them.

Braces are used by those who suffer from carpel-tunnel syndrome. The carpel tunnel is just that, an opening in your wrist in which nerves travel from the arm to the fingers. Those who type a lot, possibly in risky positions, inflame those nerves. Angling the wrist, such as when you’re typing, compresses the tunnel and causes great pain.

The treatment is to keep the wrist straight, reducing the pressure on the tunnel and allowing the nerves to heal on their own. Braces are designed to do that. They are not gloves. They consist of stiff pieces of plastic sewn into a sleeve that is pulled over the hand and up the arm. They are anchored to your hand by a thumb loop. Because they cover both the arm, the wrist, and part of the hand. They keep the wrist straight, like a plaster cast would. Wearing them at night, while you sleep, gives the hands a chance to recover. You don’t need to wear them during the day.

Note again: These are treatments that I’ve seen work with writers, but I can’t say that they will work for you. Let your doctor or any other qualified medical professional examine you and recommend a course of treatment.