I’m going to tell you a scary story…
And not one that requires marshmallows and a campfire.
If you are a writer, or if you do a job that requires a good amount of computer work, please read this. It’s my PSA to all people who type, and something I wish I’d known when I was younger.
About four years ago, when my days were structured much like they are now (demanding day job + writing on the side), I started getting these pains in my arms and shoulders. Nothing too crazy at first, just these dull aches that would come and go in my forearms and wrists and shoulders and back. Pretty soon these aches went from intermittent to constant, and I started to worry.
I went to several doctors, from my general practitioner who prescribed me what was basically just prescription-strength advil, to several orthopedic surgeons, who prescribed everything from physical therapy to surgery. I went to physical therapy for a few months with no improvements; after twenty sessions, my insurance stopped covering it. In the meantime, my worry had escalated to full-on panic: my arms hurt ALL the time, and they were weak, too, to the point where lifting a water glass was painful. They gave me wrist braces, which I soon wore everywhere I went; they gave me heating pads, which I used constantly; they told me to take baths to ease my pain, and so I did, so frequently my skin started drying out and cracking.
But the pain wasn’t going away.
Computer work was physically painful; I’d go to work and only answer the emails I had to, changing my working style to calling people whenever I could. I stopped writing on the side entirely. I was absolutely miserable.
More than that, I was terrified. I was in my twenties. I needed to type, not just for my livelihood, but also for my sanity. If I couldn’t write, who was I?
Finally, after exhausting my other options, I talked to my cousin’s wife, who works as a naturalpath. If you’re not familiar, this means she studies health and takes a holistic approach to health issues; instead of prescribing drugs, she looks at diet, exercise, and other more natural ways to heal your body.
She told me to go see a chiropractor and to start doing yoga.
“But the problem is my arms, not my back,” I told her. “And my arms are so weak; how is doing yoga going to help?”
“Your back is connected to your arms,” she replied. “And the reason this happened to you is because your body was too weak to sustain the amount of computer work you were doing; you need to strengthen yourself if you want the pain to go away.”
This was the opposite advice from everything my doctors had told me; they’d been prescribing rest and drugs. But out of other options, I took my cousin’s advice.
The chiropractor did the things that chiropractors do; adjustments and electrical currents. But the most important thing he did was to send me to his in-house massage therapist. I’d gotten massages at physical therapy, but they’d been restricted to my arms. The massage therapist at the chiropractor dug into my back. And I mean dug in. These massages were nothing you would associate with cucumber water and soothing spa music; they were hard and painful and I would leave beyond sore.
At the same time, I hesitantly signed up for beginner yoga classes. I had never before enjoyed exercise in my life, but there was something very soothing and gentle about the way yogis approach “the practice”. They really eased me into it. It seemed entirely counterintuitive to be putting weight on the part of my body that was paining me, but the yoga teacher echoed what my cousin had told me; that to ease the pain of my sore muscles, I needed to strengthen them.
And something interesting happened: over time, the massages plus yoga started to work.
What I was eventually (self-)diagnosed with was “Repetitive Strain Injury” (not Carpal Tunnel, as the doctors had suspected), and it was exactly what my cousin told me it was: my arms and back were too weak to sustain the amount of stress I was putting on them by my constant computer work. To fix them, I did not need drugs; I did not need surgery. I needed firstly to heal the muscles with massage, and then to strengthen them with exercise.
I made other adjustments–I got an ergonomically correct work station (keyboard at elbow height, screen at eye height–which means you should NEVER work on a laptop alone, get an external keyboard and/or monitor) and I took a one-month break from work and all typing to give my arms a rest (which was pretty depressing, to be honest–you try spending an entire month of your life trying not to use your hands or arms. I ended up reading and taking lots of walks).
But at the end of that one month, when I returned to work, the pain was gone. I have been pain-free for four years now.
This experience taught me two things.
1. It made me wary of doctors The first response of every doctor I saw was to give me drugs. I went to the “best orthopedic surgeon in New York City” according to the internet, and his suggestion to fix my problem was surgery. Not once did any of them mention yoga. Not once did any of them mention massage. I’m not saying I’m renouncing all of Western medicine forever, but I now take a much more holistic approach to my health. (Within reason; for the record, I do not believe massages and yoga can cure cancer.)
2. Writers: your health is IMPORTANT At that point in my life, I barely worked out. I didn’t have a perfect body by any means, but I wasn’t overweight, and figured that time spent exercising was time I could spend writing. I wanted to be a writer, not a bodybuilder or model, so why bother?
I got my answer: because your physical health is so, so important! You cannot spend your time creating beautiful stories if you’re in pain.
I could have avoided this experience altogether had I known back then the things I know now: to pay attention to my posture while working, and to take the time to keep myself strong. So this is me passing on the advice I would give to my younger self if I could:
Do not neglect your health for your art.