What I wish I’d known before getting RSI

by Raquel Baetz

I have a repetitive strain injury (RSI). It started more than ten years ago with an ache in my mouse hand and eventually left me unable to type without excruciating pain. I’m back in the digital saddle again, but only after learning some important lessons. Here are my big ten:

RSIs sneak up on you

Repetitive strain injuries don’t happen overnight. And their insidious nature makes them particularly difficult to ward off because you often feel OK doing what you’re doing right now.

So hunching over your smartphone binge-watching Netflix on the train every morning may feel fine. But add it to the long hours you spend at your work computer and, oh yeah, the time you’re on your tablet in the evenings… at some point your body is going to tell you that it disagrees.

Your fingers don’t operate independently of the rest of your body

While you’re typing and tapping away, the action your fingers make has a knock-on effect on your arms, shoulders, neck and back.

For example, if you use your smartphone with one hand, you are likely sliding your pinky finger under your phone to balance it, while you scroll with your thumb. This means your smallest finger is bearing the weight of your phone for all the hours you spend doing this action. There is a nerve that runs from your neck, down your arm, into your two smallest fingers. Every time you use your smartphone in that way, that nerve is being affected.

Our bodies are one big interconnected system. And what we do with one part of them plays a part in what the rest is doing and feeling.

Looking down all the time hurts your whole body

When you stand upright, with your head on top of your spine, your head weighs about ten pounds. As you bend your neck down to look at your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop keyboard, the strain your head puts on your spine increases significantly the more you look down.

If you’re sitting at your desk looking straight down at your keyboard, your head feels like it weighs 60 pounds to your spine. That’s about the same as three car tires. Over long periods of time, that amount of strain is going to show.

Good workstation set-up isn’t complicated or expensive

There is loads of free advice available online on how to set up a computer workstation safely. If the equipment you’re using doesn’t match what you see on the internet, don’t worry; do-it-yourself workstations work just as well.

For example, a stack of books works as well as a laptop stand. Just be aware that once you’ve made one adjustment, the rest of your workstation will need to be adjusted too. So, if you’ve put your laptop on a stack of books, you have to use a detachable keyboard and mouse to get your arms in a safe position too. Check out our previous article to help you get set up.

How you use your chair is more important than what chair you use

Trying to find the perfect ‘ergonomic’ chair that’s going to save you from computer pain is a waste of time and money. It doesn’t exist.

Yes, there are chairs that will make you marginally more comfortable, but largely it’s how you use your chair rather than what chair you use that matters. And the first trick is not using it all the time.

The musculoskeletal system is the body’s movement system and it needs to move to stay healthy. Stand up for a few minutes at least every 30 minutes to give your body a break.

When you do have to sit, bring awareness to the way you are sitting. Heads, shoulders, hips need to be in upright alignment. If one of these starts to stray, remind yourself to bring it back. Keep bringing yourself back to this awareness all day long.

Being comfortable isn’t always a good thing

What feels comfortable may not be what’s good for you; it’s just what you’ve become used to doing. Before my RSI, I used to sit with my legs crossed up on my chair, Buddha style. I like doing yoga, the position felt good to me, so I thought it was OK. It wasn’t.

Feet need to be flat on the floor when typing and mousing to give the body a stable base from which to operate. Leg crossing, legs extended, feet hooked around back of chair legs – all of these positions throw your hips and the rest of your body out of alignment.

Become aware of what you do that feels comfortable, but may not be the best positioning when it comes to computer and other digital device use.

Shed unnecessary physical habits

I’m a big worrier and my body actually worries right along with my mind. It’s a kind of all-over physical tension and I can feel it happening as soon as I start working. But if I bring my awareness back to the here and now, I’m able to relax my body, even when I’m worrying about something.

Bringing awareness to your body, what it’s doing and how your thoughts are affecting it makes a big difference to the way you feel.

Do some exploring with your own physical habits and experiment with shedding the unnecessary. For example, using a lot of force to hit the keys on your keyboard doesn’t actually make you type faster, but it does create a lot of tension in your body. Another example: leaning in to your screen doesn’t help you see or think, but it does throw your whole body out of alignment.

Digital downtime is mandatory

In our always-on world, it’s easy to fall into the overachieving trap, whether it’s in relation to work, family, friends, hobbies, etc. And our mobile devices make it easy to fall into this trap.

Making time to be away from your digital devices is good for body and mind, so figure out how you are going to break your addiction in small increments.

Can you designate one day per weekend as a device-free day? (You can still take calls on your smartphone, just don’t text or surf the internet.) Can you stop using your smartphone as your alarm clock? This way, you won’t be tempted to start checking social media as soon as you wake up. It’s a good idea to have the bedroom as a device-free zone in your home.

Ignoring pain doesn’t make it go away

When the pain started in my hand and forearm, I told myself it was ‘the pain of work’. I thought, “Everyone has it. It’s normal. There’s nothing I really need to do about it.” Wrong.

If you feel pain, start doing something about it. First make sure you are using good basic workstation set up. If the pain persists, you most likely need to get more breaks, movement and digital downtime into your day.

Once you’ve done that, if the pain still won’t budge, it’s time to see your GP who can refer you for tests or treatment like physiotherapy or acupuncture that will help with bouts of acute pain.

Being a perfectionist can be dangerous

The sometimes sham heroics of our work behavior, including being too busy to take breaks and having to check emails all night long is having a seriously detrimental effect on our health – body and mind.

If it doesn’t have to be done right now, leave it for tomorrow. Don’t be afraid to set the example at your co-working space or office. Stand up and walk away from your computer. Your body will thank you by being able to work pain free for years to come.

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Damian Zaleski
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