Early on I had this problem, and over the years I’ve managed to fix this with knowledge and experience from a dangerous profession.
On with the story…
Yesterday I was at one of my favorite writing hideouts, the Oxford Exchange, leaning back on two pillows on the over-sized couch (oh, what a soft couch) writing on my 11-inch MacBook Air. I had just finished 2,600 words on my novel—chapter 43, thank you—and was going over the last little bit I had written.
Finishing my quota for the day doesn’t end the thought process of the story going on in my head any more than pulling your finger out of a bowl of warm carmel ends the strand that’s still running all gooey back down into the bowl: it takes a while to disconnect enough so that I can go on to the next project without coloring that next project in the writing style I just finished.
As the strand is running thinner and thinner in my head, I start to close the cover when a kindly gentleman (who earlier sat on the other corner of the couch awaiting friends) strikes up a conversation with me centered around the same laptop computer he had just purchased.
It didn’t take long before he asked me how I managed to write or surf the web for long periods of time without getting that pinching pain in his neck and down his back. He taught online classes and I could tell by his description and the automatic wincing of his face that this was something more than a little nuisance.
This is something with which I have experience, both in the pain and in teaching others how to prevent pain. The solution below is important for anyone who has to sit for extended periods of time at a computer or with a sketch pad in front of them.
Proper Now, Proper
Now the best, proper, position for sitting at a computer is back straight, shoulders pulled back, head held high as if the top of it (centered over the spine) is being pulled upward with a string.
Will you sit the proper way? Maybe for the first 10-30 minutes.
Keeping the back rigid and head straight in line is a habit most of us don’t spend enough time reinforcing. If you do, wonderful.
For the rest of us, we need to adjust a few things. We’re creatures who enjoy comfort and the proper position for sitting isn’t the most comfortable to maintain after hours and hours—especially when we writers get immersed in the stories of our minds. We tend to forget our environment, our bodies, the small plagiarizing squirrel peering over our shoulder to see how far along in the story we are…
The human adult head weighs about 10-12 pounds.
Imagine holding a bowling ball up near chest level in the ready position, elbow under the ball. Now take that same position and tilt the hand holding the ball forward and hold it there without adjusting your elbow or arm position.
Incredible strain, right? Try holding it in that position for a few hours.
The forearm muscles lay over your skeleton different than your neck and back muscles, but you can get an accurate idea of the amount of strain inflicted by tilting your head forward of the body in the same way the bowling ball stresses your forearm muscles to maintain that angle.
In the graphic below you can see the red line indicating the position of the chest relative to the pelvis. The more you tilt forward, the more the weight of your head creates stress on the upper neck and back muscles.
The black line indicates the stress angle created that keeps the muscles under constant tension.
In the left image you can see the person has adjusted the chair chair to a lean-back position, allowing for the chair to take up the strain that your back muscles would as shown in the right image.
Using the left image posture you may also want to make sure you tuck a pillow or two behind the lower back to avoid strain there: it doesn’t make sense to relieve strain at the neck only to put it in the lower back.
The physics of it all
You may ask why the stress in the right image doesn’t occur in the left image; you can see that the actual angle of the head in relation to the chest is almost the same.
Imagine high tension wires running over your back to your head. As you lean the head forward these wires pull tighter and are under constant tension to hold the head in position, and the structure they ride over (your neck, vertebrae, discs) bears more compressing force. This doesn’t occur in the same amounts as in the left image where the wires aren’t under the same tension.
The wires, of course, are your neck and back muscles.
This tilting forward of the head is nothing new to people who train submission grappling. In that arena, however, there is considerable excessive force being applied (pulling the head down to the center of the chest) to effect a change in position—usually to get out of the guard—or to cause the person to tap from the pain.
This bending under stress is also done in the manner where the person’s entire body weight is forced over the head—essentially with the person upside down and the aggressor forcing their hips down toward the head.
This is called stacking.
In a stacking position, as in the other, disc herniation in the neck can occur resulting in a long rehab and even surgery to fuse the spine.
When you sit hunched forward, as in the right image, the spine and vertebrae line up in an unnatural position creating a strain on the discs that cushion the vertebrae. This not only causes momentary discomfort, but can also cause extended problems over time.
A Moving Proposition
Sitting in a pain-relieving position that gives us comfort so we can focus on the task at hand isn’t the only thing we need to do to minimize or eliminate the tension in our back and neck muscles. You must take breaks and move the body.
The human muscle-skeletal system is designed for movement, including movement under stress. We create a positive internal pharmacology with movement. It’s a good thing. If that means you need to get up and stretch every 20-minutes, then do so. Need to take a little walk? Do so. It will benefit your body and your writing.
When I write for extended periods of time, I frequently shift between feet on the floor (left image) position to one where I sit cross-legged and the computer rests between the legs. I also occasionally shift to feet under me and both knees to one side or the other, the laptop balancing between the top leg and the arm of the sofa or pillow.
When what you’ve been doing for years and years starts to bring you tension headaches, neck and back aches, then it’s time to switch the way you sit. It may also be time to get to a massage therapist—not the foo-foo Swedish massage one, but someone who can lay it into you with deep-tissue neuromuscular massage. It can be uncomfortable, painful even, at first, but after a few sessions your therapist will have undone the terrible crime you’ve perpetrated on your physical form, and you will love the therapist for what you initially perceived as a sadistic lean.
The first step to going anywhere and finding a path that will help you is to first know where you are. Pay attention to yourself and your head position when you watch TV, sit talking with friends, how you hold your head when you drive, chop vegetables, walk, etc. When you discover all the activities where you are unconsciously putting undue strain on your neck and back, you can then effect change.
And I’m betting it’s in more activities of your life than you think.
This is a muscle/posture thing. Do it. It works. If it doesn’t, and you’ve really done these suggestions over a period of time, religiously, then you may have to look deeper into structural or nerve damage that may need a doctor’s ministrations.