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Writing with RSI: Top Tips for Indie Authors

John Allen headshot

British indie author John Allen

Like tennis elbow to a tennis player, RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) is an occupational hazard for any indie author who depends on the full use of his hands, wrists and arms to ply his trade. British writer John Allen shares his own RSI wake-up call and what he learned from the experience to fend off future attacks. (Turns out he had tennis elbow too!)

Scream If This Hurts

I am embarrassed to admit that I screamed when getting out of bed three weeks ago (though I like to think of it as more ‘a manly yell’).  My right arm and most of my right hand were numb. The bits that weren’t numb were filled with a pain that felt like a cross between being stabbed with a knife, and someone playing the violin on my nerve endings. As a writer this poses a serious problem.  Just how do you write when you can’t use your hands properly?

I used to think that Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) was something that happened to other people.  Then just one month ago I was diagnosed with RSI and tennis elbow in my right arm.  Being accident prone, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Name me an injury and I’ll not only have done it, I’ll have done it in style.  Twice.

In the past five years, I have managed to crack two ribs (skiing), tear the ligaments in my left knee (half marathon), break one arm (skiing badly), and sprain my wrist (driving, possibly badly).  There are hazard warnings that feature me.  Unfortunately I enjoy playing sports as well as reading and writing, so injuries are always a possibility.  Exercise can be fun, and as a writer I know how important it is to stay healthy.

But writing was the last activity I expected to injure myself in.

Physical Threats from Writing

John Allen with injured hand in wrist supportWe spend so many hours behind the keyboard that it’s easy to forget the strain this can cause the body.  My physio therapist has told me that the damage to my hand, my fingers and my elbow has been caused by long hours of typing.  She doesn’t think the damage is irreversible (which is a relief), but cheerfully told me if I don’t adjust my working life style I will suffer with RSI for the rest of my life.  How splendidly dire!

I am currently learning a very painful lesson: don’t sit behind your keyboard for hours without a break.  It’s bad for your muscles, it’s bad for your back, it’s bad for your eyes… Basically it’s bad.  Now, I know there have been many articles written about this, and you’re probably thinking “this will never happen to me!  I laugh in the face of RSI!  Ha Ha Ha!”  I understand because it’s exactly what I used to think as I read those same articles.  And then I woke up yelling in a manly fashion.

So how can you prevent or limit RSI?

  1. Make sure your computer screen is at eye height
  2. Make sure your chair is supporting your back and keeping your posture straight
  3. Take regular breaks from your workstation
  4. Exercise and stretch
  5. Seriously consider investing in ergonomic equipment for your workstation (mouse, keyboard, chair)
  6. Have a go with voice recognition software (it’s what I’m using to write this article)  – most computers come preinstalled with voice recognition but you can also download software online
  7. Try not to slump or slouch when you’re sitting or walking about – seriously it messes up your posture and muscles
  8. Avoid using your laptop on your lap – it causes you to slouch and hunch forward

Of course you don’t have to listen to me.  After all, I never listened to all those other articles about RSI thinking “it’s just a silly injury”.  By all means carry on with your bad habits.  Slouch at your desk or table.  Strain your neck whilst sitting with your laptop perched on your knees.  Mess up your hands and fingers by typing for long hours with no break.  Use a badly designed mouse or touch pad to compound your muscle strain.  Sit in a chair with no back or arm support.

Continue to do all of this and you too can wake up one morning screaming in agony (or yelling in a manly fashion).

OVER TO YOU Do you have more top tips to share to prevent/contain RSI? Or horror stories to add to John’s that will make others take avoiding action? We’d love to hear them!

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10 Responses to Writing with RSI: Top Tips for Indie Authors

  1. Marianne Sciucco June 9, 2016 at 2:59 pm #

    What a great post about RSI’s. This is real folks. My RSIs started in 2006, the result of an inappropriate computer workstation at my nursing job. I have been permanently partially disabled since 2007. Writing is painful and I can’t work at the pace I prefer but I manage to plod on. One thing that really helps is eliminating the mouse. That little bugger is responsible for many ailments including shoulder pain, bursitis, and elbow pain, tendinitis. The remedy? A Logitech gaming keyboard with glide pad. I use one at home and at work and it’s great. Relieves and prevents pain. You can read my RSI story on The Creative Penn. http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2015/08/20/repetitive-strain-injury-rsi/ Be careful out there!

  2. Pauline Baird Jones June 9, 2016 at 4:49 am #

    No one ever believes me, but I read a book called Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. Look up Dr. John Sarno on Youtube. Pretty interesting stuff.

    • JD Smith June 9, 2016 at 10:11 am #

      Pauline, I have read that too, and it has helped me tremendously! Very interesting stuff indeed.

    • Orna Ross June 10, 2016 at 6:14 am #

      I’m a total believer in the mind-body connection.

  3. Debby beece June 9, 2016 at 2:35 am #

    Another suggestion to help with the tennis elbow from excessive typing, wear compression arm bands,around your forearms to keep the muscle firm and protect the elbow. A doctor perscribed this for me years ago and it helps with painful swelling from tennis elbow.

  4. Warren Shuman June 9, 2016 at 12:55 am #

    I totally agree. While I have not suffered the pain that John has — RSI, I do have serious butt-bones pain that requires epidural injections, and 750 Mg of acetaminophen twice each day. I sit on a heavy thick pad plus a lush pillow. I use a walker. Otherwise I am well, with no serious life-threatening problems. I will be 90 in just 11 months. I write e-novels: Thrillers, Sci-Fi—.Fantasy, and mystery I will have three e-books in publication and distribution by the fall months.

    Stay well john… best of Success…\

    Warren..

  5. Edmund Pickett June 9, 2016 at 12:25 am #

    For those who use a laptop as your main writing device, try making a shelf to raise the machine up so the screen is at eye level. Three pieces of wood and a few screws will do the trick. This makes it too high to easily type on the keys, but there’s a cheap fix for that. Get an extension keyboard and put it under the shelf. Sounds complicated but it’s very simple and cheap. You can get a wired or wireless external keyboard for 20 USD in any Radio Shack. And here’s tip #2 to help you sit up straight. Make a sight guide out of a cardboard box. This is just a piece of cardboard that slides under the front of your laptop and then bends up at a 90 degree angle to block your view of the keyboard. You trim the top edge so you can just see the task bar at the bottom of your screen when you sit up tall. Any slouching and you can’t see those icons. This makes sitting in the chair very pleasant. A few hours of typing is like a gentle session of stretching. Back feels great. Shoulders get in the right position. Try it. You’ll be surprised.
    Also when suffering acute pain from RSI, try those gel packs you put in the freezer. You need an elastic bandage to hold the gel packs on your wrist or elbow, but this works amazingly well.

  6. Wanda Luthman June 8, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    I completely understand! At my day job, I have an ergonomic chair but at home, I don’t. I’m off for the summer and am catching up on all the writing I had been putting off. Guess what? I bent over one day and couldn’t stand back up. I realized my chair at my home computer wasn’t supporting my back. Now, I have a pillow to support my back and I sit upright with my back pressed against the chair. It’s so important to take care of ourselves. Heal quickly!

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