Sunday, January 26, 2020

Occupational Hazard: Author's Elbow

Zoë Sharp

Over the years, I have put my series main character, Charlie Fox, through the mill. She has been shot (more than once), stabbed (also more than once), pushed off her motorcycle and then shot (OK, that was just the once), shot down in a helicopter, mildly tortured, Tasered, experienced various broken bones, been punched more times than either of us can count, and buried by an earthquake.

So, I suppose it’s only fair that for the past month or so I’ve been suffering from the process of actually writing about all this stuff. Despite not attempting to play tennis since I was about twelve, I am now the proud owner of tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, if you want to be proper about it.

Charlie Fox would, no doubt, be greatly amused at my expense.

The problem is usually caused by ‘strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint’. In other words, too much chipping away at the word-face and using a computer mouse.

I began to realise I’d got a problem on the run-up to Christmas. Pain in the outside of my forearm up near the outer knobble of my elbow, problems picking anything up that also entailed gripping with my hand, and discomfort regardless of my arm being bent or straight. Gripping and twisting motions, such as opening a jar, turning on a tap, or using a screwdriver produced the worst effect.

If the muscles and tendons in the forearm are over-strained, tears and inflammation occurs near the bony lump (the lateral epicondyle) on the outside of the elbow. I’ve previously had similar problems with my left elbow, although on the inner side, which is golfer’s elbow.

And no, I don’t play golf, either.

I confess that, since the beginning of November, I’ve been working pretty much continuously on the sequel to DANCING ON THE GRAVE. (And yes, I know I originally said that was a standalone but events have somewhat overtaken me.) And now, as the end of January approaches, I’m almost done. In fact, I’ve just extended my self-imposed deadline by a week into February, just to give my elbow half a chance to recover.

My problem was not just caused by too much keyboard time. I think I can also put it down to poor ergonomics. I was using an old table in lieu of a desk, so the height of seat-to-desktop was never quite right because of the frame. It was also not quite deep enough for me to get the keyboard far enough onto the surface, and the top was slightly warped, leading to a raised ridge under my forearms.

So, for Christmas, my pressie to myself was a custom desktop, made from 15mm plywood on an Ikea height-adjustable frame. I’ve even covered the surface in dark green pleather, like a proper olde-fashioned desk. I also got a new upright mouse when my old one gave up the ghost, and a padded wrist rest. I have been using a curved ergonomic keyboard for years, plugged into a separate monitor.

But, nevertheless, this is a case of fitting new padlocks to the stable door, long after the horse has naffed off into the distance.

In lieu of being able to get a doctor’s appointment, I’ve been treating this in a number of ways. (As many as I can think of!)

I’ve looked up the appropriate exercises, and while doing any kind of strenuous work I’ve been using an elbow brace that consists of a Velcro strap with a padded lump that goes on top of your forearm. In theory this takes some of the strain off the inflamed area.

I’ve also been using an ice pack at regular intervals. I have one that contains gel and never freezes solid, so I’m not in danger of frostbite when I forget and leave it on for far too long. It’s in a cover that Velcros around my arm, which means it stays in place nicely.

I borrowed a TENS machine to zap myself with. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, which uses low-voltage (or should that be low-amperage?) current through two or four pads placed strategically around the elbow. It’s like being constantly prickled but better than the alternative.

The scientific jury is still out, apparently, on the effectiveness of a TENS machine but I used one when I damaged my back a few years ago and it was about the only thing that allowed me to function. It’s having much the same effect this time.

Just as long as I don’t shuffle my feet across a synthetic carpet and then grab a metal door handle, I should be fine.

Apart from that, I’ve just been on occasional doses of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. If anyone has any other suggestions, I’m all ears!

Like I said, Charlie Fox would be laughing her arse off…

This week’s Word of the Week is selenology, meaning the study of the moon. Also, selenography, the study of the features of the surface of the moon. From the Greek name for the moon, Selene.

Upcoming Events:

May 1-3, Newcastle City Library, Newcastle upon Tyne.

June 4-7, Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Bristol.


  1. I also suffered from a variant of this, Zoe. Tennis shoulder. I also don't play tennis. My cousin is an orthopaedic surgeon so I consulted him. You would think he would be keen on operating, but he is not.
    "Can you live with it?" he asked.
    I admitted that I could.
    "Come back and see me when you can't."
    I asked if it would go away by itself.
    "Probably not." He's that sort of cousin.
    It did. So keep your fingers crossed.
    And, yes, CF will be permitting herself a wry smile. At least.

    1. Yes, the other elbow did eventually get better by itself. I'm not keen to have it injected with cortisone, which is the usual medical solution.

  2. Have you thought of acupuncture? My acupuncturist has taken care of everything from lower-back pain to carpel tunnel syndrome to rotator cuff inflammation for decades. And unlike the meds you mention, acupuncture has no nasty side effects. If Charlie laughs at your pain, threaten to make a horse fall on her. That should give pause even to the likes of her.

    1. I hadn't thought of acupuncture, Annamaria. I'll have to give it a try. And yes, Charlie hasn't yet had a horse fall on her, although she has thrown one at somebody else...

  3. Acupuncture, K tape while writing.....I always wear it on that final editorial push .... and investigate Powerball. They are a gyroscopic vibrational therapy that is really a mini power plate. Lots of tennis players use them ! Very effective.

    1. I have just ordered some K tape, Caro -- thanks for that. Never come across Powerballs before. Interesting!

  4. Where I come from in the States, if you get the Powerball, you'd have enough money to buy yourself a new elbow and have some change left over. Ice is what I've always used. So-so effective for me.

    1. Thanks, Stan. I do find that ice helps, although my gel pack is much easier to use than real ice or a bag of frozen peas. I've order a Powerball and will see what effect it has!

  5. You didn't get me with this column's words-of-the-week, selene-xxxx (no, not THAT xxxx) has long been familiar to me as a long-time science fiction reader.

    Sorry to hear about the elbow/forearm. Been there a couple of times. Avoiding over-stressing and wearing the bumpy elbow-brace, together with gentle exercises/stretching has gotten me through, but avoiding your 'job' is tough to do. Hope you're all well and ready to kick Charlie's laughing arse soon!

    1. Thanks, EvKa! Glad this week's word was a familiar one to you. Yes, if I could rest the arm for a while, it would probably be fine but that's a bit difficult at the moment, with a deadline looming, so I'll keep trying to help it along and worry about that when I've typed The End.

  6. Sorry you're in pain, Z! Been there myself with tennis elbow. I took the route of Cortisone shots - aargh!

  7. OUCH, Zoē, I feel for you. Thirty some odd years ago, when I first acquired the farm, I spent a solid day shoveling a half-century of accumulated mud out of the spring house--that little white stone structure behind the kitchen. Within a few days I had the most painful "tennis" elbow I'd ever had. I was told the repetitive shoveling motion is what did it. I tried everything to remedy it...though TENS wasn't around then...and after a year of pain I gave into the cortizone shot. As if by magic the pain went away!! The good thing about that experience is that I do everything I can when typing to avoid putting anything close to such repetitive strain on the elbow or wrist (puh puh puh), another reason I gave up drinking. :) Peristika!