Self-published children's author Karen Inglis provides a cautionary tale about back care for writers everywhere. We hope it wasn't back pain that caused her to name one of her children's novels Eeek!
Almost four years ago to the day, I stood up after a three-hour stint sitting at my desk to be greeted by a searing pain shooting down my left leg, coupled with a deep and decidedly uncomfortable sensation around my left buttock and lower back. ‘Wow! What’s that?’ I thought. I assumed that I must have been sitting in an odd position for too long or possibly was suffering the delayed after-effects of sleeping at an odd angle.
At that time I was combining day-job writing with my children’s fiction writing, so was super busy. With my mind half on other things I hobbled around a bit, made a sandwich, and then returned to my desk to work for the rest of the afternoon. Sitting made the pain go away at that stage. Little did I know that I had an injury that would turn my quality of life upside down for the next two years, requiring daily painkillers for 18 months, goodness knows how many scans, two injections into my spine, and two guided injections under CT scan into a nerve route. (The first one hit the nerve – Eeek!)
Back to that day…
The pain didn’t go away and over the course of the next ten days I continued to hobble around, and even go into meetings in town, all the time feeling extremely uncomfortable. (What was I thinking?!) It was only when bending to put my shoes on made me weep with pain that I realised that something was seriously wrong.
After various GP and physio visits, I finally had a scan where it was revealed that I had slipped a disc in my lower back: L5-S1 to be precise, apparently the most common disc to slip. The protrusion was pressing deep into the left sciatic nerve, which is an extremely large nerve that runs down the back of the leg. So here was the culprit and cause of the agony, which, unfortunately, also echoed all around my lower back and left buttock area in the form of ‘referred pain’.
So what exactly is a slipped disc?
Over to the medics now! Here’s a plain English explanation of a slipped disc (more accurately known as a ruptured disc) and a useful illustration showing how it can affect the sciatic nerve:
I wouldn’t wish the pain from a disc rupture on my worst enemy. It is ever-present, draining, debilitating and dominates every moment of every day. Worse still, you can’t sit for any length of time. Keeping moving is good, but also difficult. Swimming is pretty much the only exercise that is bearable, but only front or back crawl. It’s the worst of all possible worlds (unless you’re an Olympic crawl swimmer I guess!) In particular, even as you start to heal, the sciatic nerve can take a long time to be ‘retrained’ to forget to flare up. It’s as if it needs its own trauma counsellor!
So what has this got to do with writing?
Well, it seems that inordinately long periods of sitting are not good at all for our backs, because over time the muscles that support the spine and help keep our discs apart start to become lazy, or rather forget what they were designed to do. Endless sitting brings huge pressure to bear down the spine and, in the end, something will give unless you take steps to ensure that you (a) sit properly, using your core muscles to help support your spine (b) get up regularly and move around.
This moving around regularly is vital not only for the muscle activity in itself, but also to encourage blood flow to your lower back to keep it in good health. So whether you want to go for a walk for 10 minutes, make a cup of tea, put on a wash, or lie on the floor and do exercises that encourage you to use the muscles in your lower back – make sure you do so regularly! Most physios will recommend leaving your seat every 30 minutes – a hard call when you’re deep into your writing project. I can’t claim to stick to it strictly today but I do try to make sure I move around at least once every hour.One tip is to try setting an alarm to go off to get into the habit.
There are plenty of other things to help keep your back in shape whilst sitting, such as posture and chair type, and some use magic balls to sit on. If you’re spending long periods of time sitting, I’d recommend reading up on all of this to keep your back in shape and avoid any chance of going through what I did. And if you’re experiencing dull lower back pain constantly, take action to change your habits right away!
As a starter here are couple of links, but you’ll find many more on Google:
Many slipped discs will heal (by shrinking back in and away from the nerve) within six to eight weeks. I was one of the 1 in 10 unlucky ones where it took way longer, and I might have benefited from an operation early on to shave off the protruding disc.
I can now sit for extended periods, but I do still suffer from lower back pain and need to be careful. Like everyone, I have to remind myself to get up and get moving regularly. I also do regular yoga and gym. Oddly I can’t face going to the swimming pool to exercise! If anyone asks, I say it was time that ultimately healed me – but the physio exercises, Pilates and yoga all played an important part.
If you have any top tips for good back health for writers – or any horror stories for which you'd welcome sympathy! – please feel free to share them via the comments form below.