Stretch Before You Need To
Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness. [Edward Stanley]
As a writer, or anyone who works at a desk for long periods of time, it’s not uncommon to get up from a long stint of writing, editing, or proofreading and feel a pain across your shoulders, neck and upper spine.
Anything can set it off — I found myself in agony after a long car journey through France recently, something I hadn’t suffered from before (nor, thankfully, since!)
Sometimes it comes on as a headache that has nothing to do with loud noises, too much coffee, or dehydration.
Or even sometimes, a lack of sleep because you’re neck feels unnatural lying against the pillow.
Don’t Suffer in Silence
If this sounds familiar, then you’re not alone.
There have been countless studies from around the world that indicate that people who spend a lot of time at computers experience back, shoulder, and neck pain due to the physical stress on their bodies. The daily rigour and unnatural posture of a desk can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD): injuries and disorders in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs, or blood vessels, that affect the human body’s movement.
Work-related musculoskeletal disorders are increasingly common – in the United States, musculoskeletal disorders are the single largest category of workplace injuries, and account for almost 30% of all workers compensation costs.
Many of us spend hours a day sitting at our computers with little thought about the impact it has on our bodies and our long-term health.
But, if you’re a writer, spending a long time at a desk, and suffering a musculoskeletal disorder could affect your ability to write, right now, and thus your whole livelihood.
Environment versus Lifestyle
According to Matt Middlesworth, there are two categories of musculoskeletal disorder risk, which, when you are exposed to repeatedly, cause body fatigue, and eventually, development of a musculoskeletal disorder.
These two categories are ergonomic risk factors, which are those that most often occur at work (posture, repetition of activities, force of activities); and lifestyle related factors, which include our prevailing personal health, fitness and genetics.
Of course you can, and should, design your workspace to minimise any risk, and make sure you exercise frequently and eat well to stay at peak health. But it’s almost impossible to completely eliminate those ergonomic – basically the posture related – risk factors completely for those of us who spend anything other than a very short amount of time at our desks.
Not Just Your Desk
And it isn’t just the desk that is causing us pain.
Do you ever read emails on your phone? Do you squeeze your laptop onto the tiny food tray on long plane journeys to make the most of the quiet time? Or you curl up in bed or on the sofa to write in comfort, or get a more relaxing perspective?
All these things are danger zones when it comes to posture related pain and injury risk.
Luckily, We Can Prevent It
Luckily, there are exercises and stretches that can be done at home or in your office to prevent the onset of musculoskeletal disorders and to minimize discomfit despite frequent exposure to risk factors.
We’ve pulled together a mini-guide to help with preventing this kind of pain before it takes over and turns into something more serious.*
[*Please do note that we’re not physiotherapists or health professionals; we’re simply interested amateurs who are collating information we find interesting]
Exercises for Prevention
1. The Neck Glide
The Society of Radiographers suggests the ‘neck glide’ for reducing musculoskeletal discomfort, and head, or neck pain in particular. This exercise is a counteractive retraction exercise (basically, one that moves our muscles two ways for maximum stretch and strengthening).
It’s designed to help if you have any discomfort from leaning forwards during work – a position usually associated with working on laptops or tablets because your head is bent downwards rather than level, as it would be if you had a monitor on your desk.
Stand or sit up straight. Keeping head and ears level, glide head forward on the horizontal as far as it will go, before gliding it back as far as it will go – and then push it slightly back further with your finger.
To help maintain a level head, put your finger at the spot your chin reaches when it is out at its furthest, and use that for your aim.
2. The Shoulder Shrug
Tension in the trapezius (the triangular shaped muscle that stretches from your lower head, to mid-shoulder and down to just under your shoulder blade) from sustained, unnatural stretching can cause headaches and back and shoulder pain.
This is typical if you work on the couch, on trains, planes, etc. because you’re putting tension on your trapezius from adopting a slouching, or hunched, position.
If you suffer from tightness in the trapezius, then try the shoulder shrugs to release tension and prevent further damage.
In a straight posture, bring your shoulders up towards your ears, without moving other muscles. Hold for 3 seconds, or until you feel the contraction in your trapezius, then relax completely.
Repeat five to ten times, although never to the point of soreness.
3. The Upper Back Stretch
According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, this upper back stretch is the best one for you if you feel fatigue and discomfort across the upper back. It’s gentle enough for most people, although it does come with a warning of potential inflammation if you suffer any arthritic conditions.
Although we don’t realise, we tend to use our dominant hand for repetitive movements such as flipping pages or writing notes at the side of our keyboard. And this twists our spine ever so slightly causing discomfort and, ultimately, damage.
The Upper Back Stretch balances this, and gives our back muscles a nice long stretch, getting them back into balance.
Sitting in a chair, cross your arms over your chest and hold your opposite shoulder, forcing your upper back away from your hands as much as you can without letting go.
Next, hold your arms as though holding a parcel and turn your whole upper body to once side, and then the other. Let your eyes follow your movements, stopping before any discomfort occurs.
Repeat daily and you’ll find your back feels more balanced and pain-free. Although, of course, the best strategy is to minimise the poor posture that resulted in the back pain in the first place!
4. Forearm and Wrist Stretch
Static and repetitive upper limb work such as typing – especially if you have your computer keyboard in an uncomfortable position – can cause an inflammation or an injury that results in pressure on the nerves that lead from your hand to your wrist, through the small tunnel of bone on the underside of the wrist joint.
This kind of strain is the main cause of carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition that is difficult to reverse and can result in a lifetime of discomfort or repeated operations..
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapists advises forearm and wrist stretches to combat this.
Stand leaning on a table or bench with both arms straight, palms on the table and fingers facing your body. Move with weight of your body backwards until your reach a comfortable stretch on the insides of your forearms. Hold for 20 seconds.
Then, keep your elbows straight while holding one arm out in front of you. Bend your wrist down and stretch the wrist into flexion with your other hand. Hold for ten seconds, and repeat with other hand.
Repetition and Consistency
Remember, most stretches and exercises are more effective if repeated at least twice, and 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day is the minimum recommended to help prevent the inactivity of the larger muscle groups in the legs and trunk, and the static muscle activity of the back, neck, and shoulders, which is the beginning of your body’s fatigue.
Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, or any regular activity that strengthens the core and provides slow, gentle stretching is a good way to combat musculoskeletal disorders.
Prevention Before Cure
It’s important, though, to stay strong and balanced well you feel any of the aches and pains related to musculoskeletal disorders: prevention is always better than cure.
And best of all is to develop an awareness of how your body is positioned, and to minimise the time spent in the kind of postures that led to problems in the first place.
Do you look after your body while you spend time at your desk? What’s your preferred way to stay strong and pain-free? We’d love you to share with us on social media.