I’m writing this in excruciating pain.

Which is why I’ll try to keep it short.

For the last year I’ve been experiencing sometimes severe upper back pain, mostly just under my left shoulder blade, and on bad days (like today) creeping up into my neck. And before you start telling me I’m having a heart attack, ask yourself (because you know I have!): Can you have a heart attack a little at a time four to seven days a week for a year? Also, can you stretch and make a heart attack feel better? Do heart attacks respond to Icy Hot?

The fact that I’m still alive seems to indicate I have some kind of muscle problem, which has been sort of confirmed by two doctors.

There are a few possible causes for this, but I think I may have narrowed down one of the biggest reasons—at least the biggest reason it hasn’t gotten any better.

This is me, sitting at my desk, a photo taken literally minutes ago:

What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, note the furrowed brow. This is what someone who’s been in pain long enough to just be angry about it looks like. Remember that face for a character who’s been experiencing chronic pain for a year so you can show us that rather than tell us!

But really what we’re looking at here is my left shoulder. See how it’s significantly higher than my right shoulder? I’m leaning most of my (considerable) weight on my left elbow, resting on the slightly too-low arm of my cheap desk chair. I will sit like this for hours at a time, not the slightest bit conscious of how that’s curving my spine.

Lately I’ve been trying to sit more like this:

Looking happier already!

Looking happier already!

But even as I was tying that last paragraph I realized I was slumped to the left.

Okay, so writing isn’t exactly Alaskan crab fishing in terms of risk of injury, but here I am, wading through multiple deadlines, and seriously considering taking the rest of the afternoon off because it literally hurts to do what is, physically speaking, the least strenuous job any human can have . . . unless there’s such a thing as a professional sleeper.

Take care of yourselves, writers (and editors)! If not, you might end up with a half-assed blog post like this right after hearing that Writer’s Digest magazine just named you one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers.

That would be poor timing.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Barry Tim Burton Burrowes says:

    Early in December 2011, I had a dream in which someone told me, that I would “…feel the gravity.” Upon getting up from bed the next morning I felt pain coursing through my body and had difficulty walking. I didn’t understand what had happened until I saw myself in the mirror. Like you, one of my shoulders was raised significantly higher than the other one. My spine seemed to be out of alignment. I felt wretched throughout the day as I searched the Internet in vain for a cure. In the evening I suddenly recalled those words from the dream and realized, “Yes. I AM feeling the gravity, and it hurts like Hell.”

    I don’t know why, but I was struck by the incomprehensible idea that listening to a certain album while going to sleep would help. I had never listened it before, and I haven’t listened to it since.

    Awakening the morning after, my pain had miraculously evaporated and my body was straightened back to normal. Bizarrely my earbuds were producing scratchy static and my mp3 player also displayed a hard disk volume of 12.9 petabytes. Unfortunately it went back to normal before I could get a screen shot or picture.

    You can easily get the album using the search term,

    John C. Lilly – E.C.C.O. (Silent Records, 1994)

    Lilly was a scientist who invented sensory deprivation tanks and also experimented with human/dolphin communication as well as the substance ketamine. I admit the context surrounding the album may be odd and you may even see an increase in phosphenes while listening in the dark during the musical portions of the tracks.

    I have absolutely no idea if this will help you or not, or cure you of your ailment, but it did so for me in a single night, and I hope it helps you too.

    ~Wishing you the best of future days.

  2. I had to switch desk chairs for that very reason! The arms kept my shoulders elevated, which aggravated my neck…

    My chiropractor is used to me. He’s not surprised when my atlas is out (what the neck sits on), my neck is at a 30′ slant, and I still have full mobility. He’s just a little startled that I don’t have a headache from it all.

  3. Hope you get the help with your injury you need soon!! Sorry to “like” this on your blog, but it gives me no choice to leave a comment if I don’t. It’s not the sort of thing one should like. More like offer to send prayers and hugs.

  4. Kameron says:

    I sit at my desk with a similar posture to the one you described, Phil, and, like Morgan, I’ve noticed that the arms on my chair elevate my shoulders. I started getting shooting pains and numbness in my left shoulder at the end of last summer. Went through several months of chiropractic care and a handful of massage session before getting referred to physical therapy. After 2 months of stretching and lifting weights, my shoulders finally leveled out and the pain went away. I still do the stretching a few times a week when I feel things tightening up.

  5. carl says:

    Hi, Philip. Have you tried a standing desk? That has helped me somewhat. Full standing desks are expensive, but there are more affordable alternatives that look like a little table you put on top of your desk (and then put your keyboard, mouse, and monitor on the little table).

    Anyway, I hope you feel better soon.


  6. Pingback: PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE | Fantasy Author's Handbook


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