Chronic Back Pain and The Writing Life: A Few Remedies

Jane Runs

Cincinnati Mini-Heart Marathon, 2002

Update (9/15/14): I’ve written a new post explaining what eventually resolved all of my back pain problems.


Like most writers, I spend a great deal of time sitting in front of a computer. Every job I’ve held post-college has been a desk job, and my non-work looks exactly like my “real” work—seated, with a laptop.

While I managed to stay active in my twenties as a runner, as time passed, I let other things take priority over exercise. During the last 18 months, I’ve been paying the price with a case of chronic low-back pain. It’s especially frustrating because it prevents me from returning to the exercise I enjoy most: running.

In the hopes of helping other people who may also be suffering, I’d like to share a few remedies I’ve discovered.

1. The DonTigny Method

For any women who suffer from low-back pain, I especially recommend this method. Physical therapist Richard DonTigny offers a program of simple corrections and stretches that focus on the sacroiliac joint, which he believes is at the root of many cases of lower back pain.

I’ve always noticed—especially when I actively ran—that any problems I experienced usually started in my hips. DonTigny’s method helps restore stability and strength to the hips, pelvis, and lower back. It’s helped me immensely.

2. The Egoscue Method

Before discovering DonTigny, I found this post by The Modern Health Monk, 4 (Rarely Used) Things You Can Do Right Now for Immediate Lower Back Pain Relief.

He describes a range of passive stretches called The Egoscue Method, and offers other helpful tips. I won’t rehash it here; you can find it all described in his post, with photos.

After reading the Monk, I bought The Egoscue Method, and have used one particular stretch repeatedly throughout the day—The Counter Stretch. (You can find a good photo & description at this site; visit #9, the very last one on the page.)

I also bought the book on The Gokhale Method, but with both Gokhale & Egoscue, I find it difficult to apply them methodically and comprehensively without having someone monitor my movements and posture, and advise me when I’m off track or engaging in “bad” form.

3. Treadmill Desk

This is a preventative measure rather than a remedy. Sitting for about 8-10 hours per day for 20 years has likely resulted in my current troubles, not to mention it causes a range of health problems I’d like to avoid over the long term. (Read Susan Orlean in The New Yorker to learn about the dangers of sitting.)

So I now work at a treadmill desk at the VQR offices. The desk is a VertDesk; it can be adjusted to any height with the push of a button. Below I use a treadmill base from Lifespan. The two work together beautifully. You can see me in action below.

[If you can’t see the video above, click here. Thanks to Allison Wright for acting as cinematographer.]

However, I must emphasize: nothing about standing at my desk, or walking at my desk, has cured my low-back pain. This is a long-term health decision that I hope will prevent further problems from occurring. I’m not completely back to normal yet, but I hope with enough time and changes to my lifestyle, I can be. It would be nice to call myself a runner again.

What methods work for you? Share in the comments.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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82 Comments on "Chronic Back Pain and The Writing Life: A Few Remedies"

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Tracy S

I use the Egoscue Method and it has worked wonders. The corrective exercises are great, but even more so, I understand my body more now than I ever did and this helps me address problem areas. Stretching and yoga also work wonders. Great post and keep that lower back healthy, strong and flexible.

Dave Trowbridge

Also check out Esther Gokhale’s (pronounced GO-clay) 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back. Simple exercises you do during your daily life that will transform your posture sitting, standing, and walking. The results have been utterly amazing for me: body understanding and no pain!

Joanna Penn
I’ve been meaning to write about this too Jane! I had such bad lower back pain last year I ended up having loads of tests, because the pain would wake me at night. Awful … but after all those issues, 2 things have changed my life and dramatically reduced my pain. 1) switching to a swiss ball at my desk – which keeps me moving – and also enables me to stretch while I am thinking – it’s magic and really cheap! 2) getting a Nike Fuel wristband which keeps me motivated to move – even just incidentally or getting… Read more »
Brian A. Klems

Take care of that back!
Brian

Marion Roach Smith
I recently made myself a standing desk by simply putting my laptop to work on top of an old pie safe (old, tall metal box with a hanged door, that is exactly what it says it is). I use it for all the reading I do all day, and continue to use the desktop for writing. I have total treadmill envy, though. Good for you. One huge change that has been another lifesaver is I was advised to stop doing crunches. Praise Buddha. Apparently they are rotten for tight hamstrings, which is my particular back issue. Thank you for this.… Read more »
Lexa Cain

It a strange coincidence that I woke up from a dead sleep last night with shooting pains in my lower back. I’ve had three slipped discs in the past, but that’s the first time that’s happened to me in many years. Thanks so much for the tips and links. 🙂

Sue LeBreton

Sitting is hard on us. Viniyogatherapy (Gary Kraftsow) for lower back & hips has actually been validated by the National Institute for Health. He has a DVD also for upper back, neck & shoulders so I alternate as the writing affects my upper body as well. Good luck.

Sheila Allee

Thanks, Jane, for drawing attention to this important issue. I, too, have spent decades sitting at a desk and have had multiple orthopedic issues because of it. Our bodies are not made to sit all the time. I wish I had known at a younger age what you are sharing here.

Matt Paust

I’ve been standing ever since hearing a Fresh Air interview on treadmill desks some months back. Finding the TD unaffordable, I instead have my laptop atop my dresser, which I’ve found to be the perfect height. Several years ago my wife gave me a Lumbar Extender, essentially a plastic arch I lie on for 10 or so minutes at a time and do stretching exercises. Between the two, my lower back pain has take a leave of absence.

Kathy

A very timely message as my back is flaring up due to all my sitting. I will be getting up more and stretching in order to keep my back in shape. Hopefully, it will not impact my writing. Thanks for the great tips.

Sheana Ochoa

I have fibromyalgia and so pain from head to toe predominantly on the right side, but your article, my dear Jane, has inspired me to look at how I can use preventative measures to ensure I don’t get any worse. That treadmill rocks. Can you really work and walk at the same time?

Michael Valiant

As a teenager I suffered through a pretty bad crash that led to years of rehabilitation for chronic lower back pain, rehabilitation that included taking up yoga.

20+ years later, as a practicing writer and recovering-coporate-drone I found myself dealing with a return to chronic back pain caused, at least primarily, by: too much time at a keyboard.

Rediscovering yoga has completely taken care of all hip, neck and shoulder issues. A real lifesaver.

Lloyd Lemons
I’m a guy who has had back trouble all of my adult life, and I’m now 60. I’ve had 4 surgeries and do various forms of physical therapy nearly everyday to control the pain. (I also sit a lot!) One thing I’ve learned is that it seems everyone’s problem is unique and if you try hard, you will find a unique solution. I’ve worked with all of the methods you’ve described here, and all have had beneficial results to some degree, but I would like to add one more. Cycling. I am a road cyclist. Yes, the humped over kind… Read more »
Jodi McMaster

Wow. I thought my standing desk was ambitious. My physical therapist also has me set an alarm for every 20 minutes to get up and stretch and drink some water.

Craig Faustus Buck

I write in a recliner with my keyboard in my lap and my trackball on my sternum, so I’m virtually lying down. It’s a dream on my back, but hell to stay awake.

Shannon H. Polson

I’m so curious about the treadmill desks, so great to read this post! I’ve started working (at least for administrative work…creative work is another matter for me still) standing up at our kitchen bar counter which seems about the right height. And have found every time my back starts bothering me that I can trace it back to not enough movement…you’re so right that consistent exercise (especially swimming and yoga, for me anyway) is the ticket to physical well being. A good reminder in a sedentary profession!

Ernie Zelinski
Dr. John E. Sarno is a back specialist who has an 85 percent success rate with his patients, but first the patients must accept that their back pain is caused by their repressed rage. I suggest that you read the book “The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain” by Dr. Sarno in which he explains strong emotions generated in the unconscious mind, particularly repressed rage — which includes fear, guilt, stress, dejection, and anxiety — can stimulate the brain to manufacture physical symptoms including severe back pain, fibromyalgia, repetitive strain injuries, migraine headaches, hay fever, colitis, ulcers, and… Read more »
George Z

Sarno is just plain wrong. I read it. Objectively. Really, he does more harm than good. Got a physical problem? Don’t ignore physical treatments. And pain killers can be perfectly acceptable too if not over-done. Quality of life is important.

halfawake

Oh, I’d love to have a standing workstation, but my knees would kill me if I had one, sadly. Back problems are not a problem I have, at least not yet, I’m hoping they won’t become problematical in the future. I wonder if it’d be worth it to spend the time learning Dragon Dictate so I could walk around the room while “writing” novels. It was frustrating how slow it was compared to typing, but if I stuck with it for a while I’m sure it’d get a lot better.

Nora Lester Murad

I confess. I do have repressed rage — at my back pain! I feel like I’ve lost my life. And writing productivity? Forget it.

Stephanie Carroll

Hi Jane,

How does walking at your desk help? How is that different or better than standing?

Thanks – great post! I’m a writer with really bad back problems due to scoliosis so I can’t sit for more than 30 minutes and stand but unfortunately, that causes problems for my hips which are also affected by the scoliosis.

Another option for people who prefer sitting is the backless chair – it makes it really easy to sit with proper posture. His a pic http://www.officechairadvice.com/images/assets/reviews/wing-kneeling-chair-large.jpg

Sincerely,
Stephanie Carroll
Author of A White Room
http://www.stephaniecarroll.net

T.h. Cee

Oh and yeah…the psoas will wreak havoc on the SI joint. I believe the Psoas is the only large muscle that conects the upper body with the lower body. My suspicion is that overtime this muscle becomes “dyfunctional” due to the way we go through life.

Tracy S

Yes, this is my main problem and tight QL. I do lots of stretching for both of those areas including front quad stretching. Lots of other advice here too!

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[…] Jane Friedman includes a treadmill variation as well. […]

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[…] Chronic Back Pain and The Writing Life: A Few Remedies by @JaneFriedman – I seriously need to check these out. […]

Susan Kushner Resnick
Susan Kushner Resnick
I have the same problem and in the spring I officially gave up running and all the PT appts and medical tests that were supposed to fix my hip/back pain. I started doing yoga two times a week and now do it every other day. My hip/back pain goes away completely between classes, though sometimes it hurts during, which I’ve realized partly has to do with clenching those muscles involuntarily to protect myself from pain. Also, yoga has taught me how to move properly within my body so when I feel a twinge of hip pain, I know how to… Read more »
Bruce
I guess I’m lucky; I’ve had desk jobs since the early 1970s and have never had any back trouble at all. Even worse, I have rarely exercised; my periods of exercise have been fairly infrequent and short-lived. What could explain my lack of back trouble other than lucky genes? I don’t sit very long. Can’t stand to. Through decades of corporate jobs and now as a consultant, all my work was at a desk but I wasn’t sitting there more than 5 minutes before I was up getting coffee, going to talk to a coworker, going outside for a smoke… Read more »
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[…] Chronic Back Pain and The Writing Life: A Few Remedies | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] Instead, focus on what you can help someone else with. For example, I recently did a post on back-pain remedies for writers. A few people reached out to me privately with very useful suggestions. Will I remember those […]

Kim Boykin

A yoga ball chair solves the problem. They’re amazing!

Jocelyn Rish

I’ll have to look into the various stretches. I bought a treadmill desk last November, and I LOVE it. I’ve never been one to exercise because I get soooo bored, so being able to work (or play) and exercise has been a life safer. I feel so much healthier. But as you said, all the damage to my back that had done before is still there, so hopefully these stretches will bring some relief.

Mark
Found your blog through twitter and enjoyed having a read. I had a treadmill desk and I would definitely recommend that as a preventative measure, although I think it was a bit too late for my back pain. I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on looking after our backs when we’re young. I operate my own blog reviewing inversion tables which I created due to the success I had using one. Would be interested to hear if anyone has experienced using one? I’m not totally sure of the benefits of using one long term, but for short term pain relief… Read more »
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[…] Read more… […]

Tracy S

Jane, I’m wondering if you’ve ever tried speech to text software and dictated parts of your writing? I’m considering that as a way to mix up my time at the computer. I figure I could at least dictate initial drafts or “sketch out” scenes. Just curious if you or anyone here has tried that. Lots of great suggestions here overall.

Tracy S
I’m back to enter a little more information, which could potentially help someone on this thread. I have been having more back issues, characterized by a lot of tightness in my hips and an impingement on the right hip joint, which has been making it impossible to do certain activities as my back tweaks and “goes out” for lack of a better word. Through the recommendation of a friend, I went to a person who is certified in ART, which is Active Release Therapy. ART is often used on athletes who have had injuries that have resulted in scar tissue.… Read more »
KitMo

You might want to consider placing the desk at the other end of the treadmill and doing a little backward walking. It uses the posterior muscles more, challenges the brain a little, and will give you another perspective on the room you are in. You’d want to slow your pace for the sake of safety.

misard

For many years I suffered from intense back pain which sometimes could not move. I practiced judo for more than 15 years of my life and at the end, back pain took me to all kinds of physical activity. A year ago my pains have disappeared thanks to this all-natural treatment I found on internet which anyone can do at home. At least this treatment cured me completely. Hopefully it will be helpful for you as it happened with me. http://www.backpain-relief-4-life.com

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[…] You can read the first installment here. […]

Patricia Anahata Little, LMP
Fascinating, reading all of these comments. I am a medical massage therapist specializing in the E-L-I-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N of chronic pain. The suggested exercises and mind/body work suggested above are all excellent but there is more you need to know and it is now mentioned above. I have been living into this question for years: Why do some people benefit from one method while others do not? In my clinical practice I see remarkable turnaround with a variety of techniques–all reflecting where the client is in the moment. One thing I can not deny in ALL of them, is the balance of… Read more »
Peter Lewis Holmes

Buying a book called SIX WEEKS TO A HEALTHY BACK changed my life. …an effective set of exercises.

Emily Grosvenor

I am seeing someone for physical therapy for lower back pain, some stretching, lots of weigh-lifting focused on the core. The thing that has helped most is this kettleball thrust. I feel really silly doing it but it helps a ton. I think you’re going to do well with this post because we all have this!

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[…] chronic back pain. She also tells how she recovered from it. Check out these links to learn more: Chronic Back Pain and the Writing Life: A Few Remedies and How I Recovered from 3 Years of Back Pain; […]

Matthew

Hi Jane, that treadmill desk looks like a great idea. I’ve got a stand up sit down desk that can alternate between standing height and sitting height, which I’m really enjoying. My lower back disc protrusions have made it almost a requirement to stand up for most of the day. I’d love to try a treadmill desk like yours one day….maybe I could hire one for a week or two as a “try before I buy”. How far do you walk on any given day while working at your desk ?
Thanks,
Matthew
(Melbourne, Australia)

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