Thursday, September 2, 2010

Back to Back

By Beth Terrell

Writers, as I'm learning much to my chagrin, are at high risk for lower back problems. That's because sitting is one of the worst things you can do for your back, but almost everything we do requires sitting--writing the Great American Novel, promoting the Great Amerian Novel, answering fan emails about the Great American novel...and if your job, like mine, involves working on the computer most of the day, it just adds to the risk. Think about it. Whether you write via keyboard or old-style ballpoint pen, it's hard to do it while walking around. Standing is an option, but it turns out that's not so good for the old back either.

What's a Great American (or British, or Scandinavian, etc.) Novelist to do?

Well, obviously, the best strategy is to avoid the problem altogether. Here are a few suggestions for that:

1) Use good posture when you write (take it from me, you do not want to write a 100,000-word novel while sitting on your couch with your laptop in your lap). Get a good chair. Position your computer so you don't have to tilt your head too far forward to see the screen. If you need to redesign your ork station so you can sit in a more spine-friendly position, figure out a way to do that. Your chair should not only be comfortable, it should have good support for your lower back. If it doesn't, use a lumbar pillow. I found a handy device at my local Walgreens that slips over the back of my chair or car seat and gives lower back support. At less than fifteen dollars, it was well worth the price.

2) Take frequent breaks. I know, it's hard. If you're anything like me, you get involved in a scene, and when you look up again, it's eight hours later, and you feel like some malevolent Medusa has turned you into a statue of The Author at Work. Avoid this by getting up every hour or so. Do some stretches. Take a brief walk, even if it's just around the block or even the back yard. Or even the living room. Set a timer if you have to. Just get up and move. When you have to sit, change positions frequently. Cross and uncross your legs. Twist your torso (gently) from side to side. Fidget a little.

3) Keep hydrated. One theory I've read is that, if we stay dehydrated long enough, the disks in our backs can dry out and get brittle, which makes them more susceptible to herniation. I don't know if that's true, but it is true that our bodies are made up largely of water and that drinking plenty of pure water keeps everything working better, including our movable parts. I feel stiffer and more sore if I don't get enough to drink. I've also read that, because we drink little water and a lot of caffiene-based drinks, most of us are at least mildly dehydrated most of the time.

4) Exercise regularly. Be sure to include aerobic exercise and exercises that strengthen your core muscles. Pilates and yoga are two good options for core-strengthening exercises.

5) Eat a healthier diet. A lot of lower back problems are caused by inflammation, and some foods, especially sugars, processed foods, and red meat can exacerbate the problem.

6) Use good posture when standing. Your weight should be evenly distributed, not cocked to one side or the other.

7) Lift with your legs, not your back.

8) Wear good, supportive shoes, like New Balance athletic shoes. Girls, save the high heels for special occasions.

What if you're already experiencing back pain? First, be gentle with the exercise; two excellent options are gentle walking and walking in water up to your chest.) Then, in addition to the suggestions above, you might try the following:

1) Ice. Twenty minutes with an ice pack can diminish pain almost immediately. Be sure to put a cloth between the pack and your skin, unless the pack you're using specifically states that it is safe for use against the skin. (The one I got from my chiropractor has a gel inside that can be frozen or heated as needed, and it's safe to use directly against the skin. I wouldn't trade it for anything.) I used only the ice, because if your problem is related to inflammation, heat will only make it worse.

2) Visit your doctor or chiropractor. And educate yourself. I've heard conflicting recommendations about chiropractic work. Mine seems to help, but he's someone I know and feel very comfortable with. He doesn't do violent manipulations. If you go to one, do your homework. If you go to your doctor, you might want to do your homework as well. Would you prefer to try a more holistic approach first, or are you prepared for a surgical approach? Know your options.

3) Gaited horseback riding. Granted, you'll need to be careful with this one, and whether it's effective for you or not will depend on the nature of your back problem, but I've met and read about a number of people whose back problems were improved or elimnated after they took up riding gaited horses (such as a Missouri Fox Trotter, Rocky Mountain Horse, or Paso Fino). While the gaits of a regular horse can be very jarring (the opposite of what you need with a bad back), the gaits of a well-trained gaited horse are smoother. I've been told they also replicate the movement our hips and spines make when we walk, so riding this type of horse can be therapeutic for people with back pain. You can read about a study on this here.

I'm especially intrigued by the gaited horses, since I've always wanted one. Hmm. Wonder if I could file an insurance claim for nice gaited Morgan or Missouri Fox Trotter.

1 comment:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good advice, Beth.

I once interviewed Brian Garfield, who wrote "Death Wish," among other novels. He had a bad back and built a special computer desk designed to be raised and lowered so that he could sit for a while and then stand while he wrote. He also exercised regularly (carefully, I'm sure).