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? Did I 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.

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 use 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.

These techniques work well for a laptop, but what about a tablet or phone? Ironically, to look straight at your phone you need to hold it directly across from your eyes. (Duh) Holding up the phone puts stress on your shoulders. If sitting at a table, ignore mom's instructions and rest your elbow on the table. Less shoulder stress, but still some.

If in a car or on the subway, put your backpack or purse on your lap, and rest your elbow on that. In the grocery store, rest your elbow on the back of the shopping cart. In a recliner, put a pillow on your lap.

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.

Fingers and thumbs -- another big wear-and-tear injury from electronic gadgets. Much harder to 'save,' but with dictation software on phones and computers, you have help. You don't want to yell out info in a public place, of course. But every keystroke or push on a phone is one you could find painful at 35 or earlier (given how much we keyboard now). I tape several fingers when I type because they are already sore.

An occupational therapist can build a gentle splint to wear at night. Sounds extreme, but how many more books (or papers or letters to the editor) do you plan to write? I've had several surgeries to fix thumb joints or repair disjointed finger joints. Take it from me, this is a true example of the adage about an ounce of prevention being better than a pound of cure.

You can ignore your stiff neck or thumb joints, but you can never get rid of the resulting arthritis. It's so much easier to take short breaks, look ahead rather than down, and dictate when you can.

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.

Think about that. If you think you can't write, try my book, Words to Write by: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper.
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Text Neck revised August 2017. Check out Elaine's web page or sign up for her newsletter