Thursday, July 9, 2015

Text Neck and How Writers Can Avoid It

In retrospect, there were advantages to having my car rear-ended in the early 1990s. Really, you ask? Did you get a big financial settlement? No. I learned how to protect my neck, spine, and fingers from my writing career.

I'm sharing some of what I practice, with the caveat that I'm so far from being a medical professional they probably wouldn't let me in the door of a med school. In other words, if you are already hurting, talk to your health care professional.

In 1991, I didn't recognize until way too late that neck stiffness and headaches were the result of a car accident several weeks prior to the onset of pain. Whiplash! I was so far into the pain that I didn't even remember the accident when a doctor asked if I'd been in one!  A colleague reminded me of it.

After seeing many specialists, a neurologist did a simple series of tests. The one I remember best (which is ironic) was him explaining that he would name three objects, we'd talk for a minute about other things, then he'd ask me to remember the items he named earlier. Didn't get one of them. Made him redo the test. Nada.

His diagnosis of "muscle tension headaches emanating from the neck" set me on the road to recovery. The journey started with three weeks of muscle relaxers three times a day before I could even do therapy. Trust me, these make you so blotto you can barely write your name, much less fiction. Your goal is to never get to that point. Unless a blotto fiction genre develops.

The good techniques taught to me by a mix of physical therapists and rolfers came to mind when a spate of articles appeared about "text neck" -- neck pain from holding your head in a rigid, downward position while studying a tablet or phone. Look throughout the subway car or even at other shoppers in the grocery store. We all look down at our electronic devices, sometimes for hours every day.

The most important things I learned were to: look straight ahead when keyboarding, keep my feet flat on the floor, don't raise my shoulders, and vary my position often. This led to some teasing. I'm so short, I couldn't keep my feet flat without putting them on a box. Then I'd put the computer monitor (in the days before I ditched a PC for laptops) on another box so I could look straight ahead. Finally, the keyboard would be on my lap, so my shoulders were not tense as I typed. I looked like a physical therapy reject. But it worked, and I still use all of these principles.
Example of a really bad book cover.

Laptops are great, but used alone they do not lend themselves to a relaxed neck. I position mine so I look straight into it, and plug in a keyboard and a mouse. The keyboard sits on my knees (or lap if I'm in the recliner) and the mouse is placed so that I don't have to raise my shoulders to reach it. What a pain, you say? The opposite.

Remember that fifth-grade joke about the best way to lose ten pounds of ugly fat? The response (yelled across the playground) was to cut off your head. A very good physical therapist explained neck stress like this. "Think of your head as a bowling ball resting on a chopstick. If you don't keep the chopstick in good shape, the weight of the bowling ball will crush it."

A key way to relax the neck is to keep your shoulders down. Make a shrugging motion and relax. You'll feel the tension in your neck in the shrug pose. When a keyboard is straight across from you , or higher, your neck is tense all the time.

There are lots of gentle stretching exercises for a neck, but you won't read about them here. Too much like medical advice. Ask a therapist. I do regularly massage the back of my head (just above where it joins the neck). The first time you do it you'll be surprised how much it hurts, a sign of how tense the muscles are. I use my fingers or little wooden massage balls -- not battery operated ones, you can't control what they do. Better yet, trade gentle massage with a friend. Or pay a masseuse.

You can ignore your stiff neck or thumb joints (another big wear-and-tear injury from electronic gadgets), but you can never get rid of the resulting arthritis. It's so much easier to take short breaks -- and look ahead rather than down.

Getting back to 1991. For those three weeks of blotto-land, I wrote on a yellow legal pad and paid a neighbor a small fee to type the material into my computer. A year later I had the first draft of what became a 100,000 word book that was essentially a learning tool. It's terrible, but proof that a few minutes a day, even under duress, can lead to a book.

Here's a better cover for my book, Words to Write by: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper.
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