The idea of writing about the occupational hazards of writers first crossed my mind as a joke. A friend who’s a writer recently sustained a concussion and has been advised by her doctor to undertake a course of “brain rest” – no writing or other intensely cognitive activities for a few months. This situation, of course, lead to jokes about writers needing protective head gear given their propensity to crash into the brick walls of the literary world, bang heads against desks and keyboards in frustration, etc.
When I thought about it a little more I realized that there are some health conditions for which writers are particularly at risk. Given my background in medicine and experience with literary brick walls and frustration, I realized that I’m practically ready for sub-specialty board certification.
Here’s some information on what strike me as the big three: repetitive stress injuries, sitting, and mental health issues.
Repetitive motion/strain injuries (RSI):
Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common of the RSI affecting keyboard users. Heavy use of the tendons of the hand leads to compression of the nerves passing through the wrist. This can result in pain and numbness, which can become chronic and intractable. RSI related to mouse use is almost as common, (similar but less common problems from touch pads), as are neck and shoulder pain. This is a huge topic but here are some basics:
1. As with most health problems, the proverbial ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
-To avoid problems related to mouse use, consider learning to use both hands so that you can trade off. It may seem slow and frustrating at first, but the early inconvenience of training your non-dominant hand will pay off in the long run.
2. If you develop pain, address the problem asap. The “itises” (e.g. tendonitis) that come first are much easier to treat than the chronic changes that come later. Carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, if treated early will often resolve with rest, use of a splint, ice and anti-inflammatory medications. If left untreated, even surgery may not help.
Unlike the RSI story, which is complicated, this one’s straight forward. People who spend a lot of their time sitting have poorer mental health, more risk of diabetes and heart disease, and die sooner. More bad news: this is true even if you exercise. That’s right – your 7 mile run while the rest of us are still in bed doesn’t negate the badness of sitting from 9-5.
Thanks to a greater awareness of the risks of sitting, desks designed for standing and even treadmill desks are now more widely accepted and available. Traditional desks can often be reconfigured into standing or adjustable height workstations without a lot of cost or difficulty. And even if you can’t restructure your desk right now, taking frequent breaks – even short ones to stand, stretch, walk into another room and back, can offset some of the badness.
So if you’re not standing or walking while you’re reading this, you know what you need to do.
And the time to do that would be now.
Mental Health issues:
Everyone seems to believe that writers are at a higher risk for depression and mental health problems. And… it looks like there’s a reason for that.
From a large Swedish Study published in The Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013 on possible associations between creative professions and mental illness:
“Creative professions were defined as scientific and artistic occupations. Data were analyzed using conditional logistic regression. Except for bipolar disorder, individuals with overall creative professions were not more likely to suffer from investigated psychiatric disorders than controls. However, being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. In addition, we found an association between creative professions and first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, and for siblings of patients with autism.”
What to do about this?
The first thing is simple awareness – being attuned to the possibility of a psychiatric illness may allow you to pick up on problems earlier. Some illnesses are amenable, to a degree, to self management. For example, writing can be isolating, and isolation can increase the likelihood of depression. Keep in touch with people, make plans to see and do things with friends who tend to lift your mood.