Dealing With Repetitive Strain Injuries As a Writer

By Dianna Gunn

When Katherine told me that she was looking for guest posts about productivity for writers, I knew right away what I wanted to talk about: repetitive strain injuries (RSIs).

This includes the infamous carpal tunnel, but it also encompasses a range of other injuries caused by uncomfortable and repetitive motions.

You can get an RSI in just about any part of your body, but today I’m going to talk about RSIs in the wrists.

These injuries are particularly common for writers, especially since many of us also work at a desk for our day jobs. They are also particularly dangerous for writers. Not only can RSIs ruin our productivity, they can also cause or exacerbate depression and anxiety.

My Story

My struggle with RSI began at the tender age of fifteen. I had bronchitis throughout the entire month of November, and a new laptop. This was the perfect recipe for an astronomically high Nanowrimo word count—303,000 and change. It was also the perfect recipe for disaster.

On November 29th I woke up in the middle of the night. My wrist had seized up completely and stabbing pains ran up and down my arm.

I didn’t think much of it. I took some painkillers, and when they kicked in I went back to sleep. My original plan had been to spend November 30th trying to push out another 7K (because 310,000 sounded like a prettier number), but I promised to rest for a few days.

Unfortunately, the pain didn’t go away. After a few weeks, I went to a walk-in clinic. They X-rayed my wrist, told me I hadn’t broken a bone, and sent me on my way.

This experience repeated itself several times. Looking back on it I know there were a couple big reasons why. One is that walk-in clinics don’t like referring people to specialists; they usually save that kind of thing for family doctors, and I didn’t have one. The other reason is that doctors tend to disbelieve young, healthy-looking women who complain about chronic pain.

Eventually, I got a doctor of my own and a referral to a specialist. They prodded my wrists for a couple hours, declared that I had tendonitis, and sent me on my way with a wrist brace.

The brace helped a little, but I didn’t really get better. So they decided I didn’t have tendonitis, and they had to run more tests. The final one involved tiny electric shocks to the nerves in my arm.

All they learned was that I didn’t have carpal tunnel. So I gave up on modern medicine and decided to find my own way.

My Recovery

I had already tried some things on my own here and there, but four years ago I decided to really buckle down. My initial strategy consisted of two primary tactics: daily yoga, wrist braces, and real breaks.

The Yoga

Before I start this section, I need to add the caveat that <b>some forms of yoga can actually cause or exacerbate repetitive strain injuries</b>. If you’re suffering from a repetitive strain injury, you should avoid or at least limit poses that put most of your body weight on your wrists.

But there are yoga moves and other stretches that can alleviate some of the pain and eventually rehabilitate your wrists. Many can even be done at your desk.

I started out with the daily routines listed on my daily yoga.  It took a few tries to actually make these part of my daily routine because I suck at routine in general, but eventually, I got the hang of it. After several months of consistent daily yoga, I only felt pain occasionally instead of every day.

Since then I’ve taken a couple random yoga classes and incorporated some of those moves into my daily routine. I’ll admit, I still suck at routine so some days I don’t do my leg stretches, but I do my wrist stretches every day. On particularly long work days I often do them twice.

The Wrist Braces

The brace (they only gave me one, I don’t know why) from the specialist had helped a little, so I decided to stick with it. I also got a wrist brace for my other arm. For about a year I wore them whenever I wasn’t working. I tried a few different kinds and found that the best ones use memory foam, which provides more comfort and also allows you a slightly wider range of movement.

A good pair of wrist braces can cost as much as $60, but let me tell you, they’re absolutely worth it if you’re struggling with repetitive strain injuries. The expensive ones can even be worn when you’re working.

Now I’m happy to report that I only wear my wrist braces when I’m sleeping, or on my now-rare bad pain days. I can even get away with sleeping without them for a few nights sometimes.

Real Breaks

Here’s a not-so-secret: I’m a bit of a workaholic, and a lot of that is driven by guilt. There is a strong voice in the back of my head that feels guilty whenever I am doing literally anything not directly related to my career.

Repetitive strain injury forced me to take breaks. And not only breaks in between tasks. I also had to take entire days off due to pain.

At first, the guilt was overwhelming. It ate away at my soul, pushing me deep into depression. I hated myself for not constantly producing. Every time I saw the advice to write every day, and I knew I couldn’t, I felt like a failure and a fraud.

Eventually, I realized that the guilt only prevented me from writing when I actually could. It weighed down every aspect of my life, and it had to go.

I haven’t eradicated the guilt monster, but I’ve become good at shutting it down. When it appears, I chase it away with a mantra: if I do not care for myself now, I will not be able to produce later. This is also an important mantra for avoiding mental burnout, one of the biggest things I see writers struggling with.

Gaining Strength

Of course, life without pain is only so useful if your wrists are still flimsy. I managed to reduce the pain, but I had suffered from RSI for so long that carrying a large bag of groceries home could cause a pain spike. To prevent this, I took frequent stops, even though the grocery store was only 15 minutes’ walk from my house. This made grocery shopping a terrible ordeal.

For a while, I just diverted these duties to my fiancé whenever possible, but that couldn’t work forever. And last year, I received the perfect gift to begin my next round of physical therapy—a small copper ball that weighs about two pounds.

I do 20 minutes of ball exercises with each wrist every single day, even if I’m taking the rest of the day off from writing/work/my regular routine. The exercises themselves are a little tough to explain, so let me show you:

This copper ball has completely changed my life. I’m more than just pain free now: I’m gaining strength. I have proper arm muscles for the first time in nine years. A couple weeks ago I realized that I’ll need bigger weights soon.

I have no idea where the copper ball was bought or where you can buy something similar, but I know many people have successfully used stress balls for the same things.

A Note About Dictation

Using dictation technology wasn’t an option for me at my worst because I grew up poor, but it’s become much more affordable in recent years. It’s also become a lot better, especially at things like recognizing accents. If you’re struggling with repetitive strain injury today, I suggest checking out Dragon

The Takeaways

Repetitive strain injury is a major obstacle but it doesn’t have to ruin your writing life. If you take the steps to treat it—whether on your own or with a doctor’s help—you will eventually be able to write to your heart’s content.

Dianna Gunn is a freelance writer by day and a fantasy author by night. She blogs about creativity, books, and life at The Dabbler and is currently writing a book called Self Care for Creative People.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.