How Writers can Manage Lower Back Pain

Every coffee shop has one: the guy standing at the bar with his laptop. He’s parked his stool right next to the neighboring one ensuring neither seat can be used. The baristas try to wash their dishes without staring at him, but how can they not when he’s leering at eye level? Anyone stuck sitting on one side of him mistakes him for someone approaching with a question, because he’s looming over them like a boss with new instructions. Every so often he pushes away from the bar to grab his foot and stretch his hamstring. He’s that guy.

If he could he’d put his heel right up on the bar, grip the neighboring chairs, and do squats. It’s not his fault you don’t respect his extreme posture culture.

If there’s no room at the bar he just moseys over to a two seater and puts a chair right on the table. This makeshift MacGuyver isn’t too proud to make himself at home. He’s in the middle of a screenwriting sprint, he’s composing his master’s thesis, and marathon coding for 8 hours straight.

I’ve scoffed at this guy, with his ergonomic keyboard, his arthritis glove, and magic wristband that tells him when to move around. What a spinally mindful millennial. What a abdominal oblique elite. What a nerve savvy yuppie.

I am currently typing this from a slapdash desk made from an ironing board, a stack of books, and my laptop. I’m doing this because that standing room dick was right.

My back has gone out in a way where changing the cat litter involves tapping the scooper to a broom handle, in a way where I’m seriously considering the logistics of sleeping standing, in a way where things at the bottom of the refrigerator are lost to me.

Last night limping through the grocery store to pick up some Bayer was a Herculean challenge. Today I crawled out of bed, literally.

I’d like to say this condition came from a feat of strength gone wrong like pushing two separate cars out of the snow, helping someone carry their prize anvil collection into a fifth floor apartment, or bench pressing a picnic table filled with attractive people, but I’m pretty sure bad posture is my major trigger. Sure I’ve had a few spills this winter and I’ve lifted a few weights without taking the time to stretch, but of all the things attacking my lower back I think my couch was the biggest culprit.

You know you’re a writer when chronic lower back pain is a hazard of your line of work.

I’m in such chronic pain that I didn’t believe I could deliver a blog entry this week. When your nerves keep sending you the same pain signal it’s hard to get inspiration to flow. Then I thought: what if I wrote a quick blurb on lower back pain? I’ve spent the last few days learning how to manage it and how to prevent it in the future, and since we writers spend so much time hunched over in 45 degree angels, it’s something we should talk about. 

What to Do When You’re Stuck in Bed

When the pain kicks in and you clamp up like a bear trap, your natural instinct might be to sleep it off, but everything I’ve seen on lower back pain repeats the same phrase: inactivity is the enemy.

This doesn’t mean run up and down a flight of stairs until the spring returns to your step, but you’ll have to work to regain your mobility.

If you wake up feeling like a turtle on its back you’ll have to roll around in your shell in order to get back up. Disclaimer: if you’re in persistent pain you should consult your physician. Despite my clever demeanor I am not a doctor. These are just techniques that helped me get back on my feet.

  • 1) I pressed my knees to my chest. I felt the least amount of strain doing this. It’s important to start from the least amount of impact and move out.
  • 2) I raised one leg up, crossed it all the way over the other, twisting as much as I could, held it for about 30 seconds, turned over, and did it on the other side.
  • 3) I rolled onto my front side with my elbows at 90 degree angles and held myself up for about a minute.
  • 4) I propped myself up higher, like a pushup with my waist still touching the ground. This arched my back further. I held this pose for another minute.
  • 5) This is the step I found myself repeating throughout the day, because it’s been the most effective. I got on my hands and knees into the cat yoga stance arching my back, pushing it upward and downward.

This combination of exercises (from a combination of web videos) helped me regain my mobility. These activities worked because they allowed me to stretch through the strain without causing further pain. If you find attempting any of these steps hurts too much you may have to wait. Don’t try to fix everything while you’re still hurting.


Once You’re on Your Feet

If you can stand without going full hunchback you’re further than I was a few days ago. Here’s a few techniques that might work to keep you on your feet:

  • 1) Press your hands against the wall, place one foot further than the other, stretch your hamstrings, and then change feet.
  • 2) Get two chairs that can support your weight, put one foot up on a table, lower yourself for 15 seconds, rise up, step forward, and bend your knee, then change feet.

Unless you have a bedazzled back brace, think twice before rushing out into the world. Without that glittery girdle you might find yourself teetering back and forth, gritting your teeth at the bus stop, and good luck with small talk when your spine feels like its sitting sideways.

Fun fact about aspirin: one of the side effects is ringing of the ears. I learned this only after cleaning out my eardrums and turning off all of my electrical appliances. That ringing got louder in total silence. Turns out that Bayer I was liberally knocking back is filled with aspirin.

A number of friends suggested that I invest in a hot pad. The pad lessens the pain, increases blood flow, and relieves the tension in my muscles.

Not so fun fact about heating pads: overuse can cause diarrhea or in my case a non-sun related tan line. If this happens to you’ll want to freeze the heating gel to help manage the swelling.

Hot baths are also a good form heat therapy, but friends with jacuzzis are better.

Closing Thoughts

Maybe you don’t want to be the standing room douche at the coffee shop, but take a  moment to stand and stretch those hamstrings every so often (I’ve heard doctors say, “every five minutes”). Stress management is also a crucial preventative measure, you needed to quit smoking yesterday, and tallying up how many pounds you’re lifting.

While stress, smoking, and weight lifting can contribute to lower back pain its the constant sitting that will affect those of us with a penchant for writing. Take it from a guy who was so hunched over he couldn’t look up to see the bathroom mirror.

Maybe this is just what I get for writing a mock article extolling the virtues of power slacking.

My back will recover eventually but in the meantime I’m really going to miss sitting.

7 thoughts on “How Writers can Manage Lower Back Pain”

  1. My sympathies. Haven’t had severe lower back pain for a year, but I know it’s just waiting there in the background. To counteract the diarrhoea from the heat pad, take codeine painkillers (not sure what they call them n the US) – they give you constipation! I’m not being serious, of course. Anyway, you can console yourself that you’re following in Ernest Hemingway’s steps – he always wrote standing up.

  2. I claimed this t-shirt a long time ago, and over the years have got pretty good at managing lower back pain. Stretching is my favourite cure all, even though I don’t get around to doing it until the cramp sets in. But better late than never!
    Hope yours improves soon…

  3. I’d cringe for you, but I’m afraid my back will go out if I cringe too hard. Trust me – I empathize. Sorry to hear you’ve been in pain. You’ve kept your wit and humor in this post, but I know the reality is no joke.

    I don’t know whether to congratulate your or suck my teeth chidingly at you for keeping with your writing goal despite the circumstances. Maybe a bit of each is in order.

  4. Two weeks ago my doctor told me to knock off using the heating pad unless absolutely necessary and only for short periods–there have been cases of skin cancer as a result of its use. I immediately retired mine. Yikes.

    Feel better!

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