Let me tell you, repetitive strain injury is not the wishy-washy issue it sounds like After 12 straight years of working at a computer, plus being a writer in my spare time, my RSI diagnosis felt pretty inevitable, as well as ridiculously painful. In my case it’s in my right arm – my writing hand, and, crucially, my mouse hand. Not everyone who works extensively at a computer – or any other job that requires repetitive movements, like a factory assembly line or a supermarket checkout – will get RSI. Estimates suggest that around 7% of working people have it, although some estimates place it closer to 10%. TUC figures indicate that half a million UK workers suffer from it and that six people a day actually have to leave their job because of RSI pain. I can’t leave my job – I’m a journalist, editor and writer. If I stop using a computer, I stop being able to feed myself. Many other RSI sufferers have the same problem. So my only solution is to manage and treat the condition – luckily, it is treatable, and usually goes away with the right treatment. If you’re struggling with RSI, here are some ways you can spot it, treat it, and hopefully get rid of it without having to lose your livelihood. Diagnosis RSI presents slightly differently for everyone, but it’s usually in the arms – anywhere from fingers to shoulders.
Alex Clark, a physiotherapist with orthopaedic support specialist Neo G, tells Metro.co.uk that ‘The most common symptoms of RSI are pain, aching or tenderness, stiffness in the upper body, or a tingling or numbing feeling. ‘You may first notice these symptoms when you’re carrying out a particular action, such as clicking your computer mouse or typing, but this may cause longer periods of pain as the condition persists.’ For me, my first symptom was a pain in my wrist, particularly when I put weight on my hand. In the last few months, the pain has spread to my whole arm, and after a few hours of computer work I ache from my shoulder to my thumb. I’m in pain right now, as I type this. I initially went to my GP, who ruled out other conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. After that, the GP couldn’t really do anything aside from tell me to stop using a computer if I can, and to improve my computer posture if I can’t (my computer posture was already pretty good). I would have to wait two months before they could even refer me for NHS physiotherapy. Given that I need my arms in order to earn money, I decided to shell out on private physio so I could start treating my RSI immediately. If that’s a possibility for you, I highly recommend it.
You probably can’t just walk out of your office job, so instead you need to make your office environment as RSI-friendly as possible. ‘Keep a diary of when symptoms are exacerbated and the activities which cause it and present this to your employer if the work you are doing appears to be a trigger,’ Alex Clark suggests. This may help them provide you with more suitable equipment, such as wrist rests, a specialist keyboard or a different computer mouse. On the advice of my physiotherapist, I alternate between using a normal computer mouse one week, and a vertical mouse the next week, so that my arm doesn’t spend too long in the same position. ‘Review your desk space, setting up your keyboard to be in front of you when you are typing and leaving a gap of around 4-6 inches between the front of the desk and your keyboard,’ Alex says. ‘If you regularly use a mouse, make sure it is as close as possible to you to avoid added strain. ‘If the keyboard is not required while you use the mouse, then this should be moved aside to allow you to move the mouse as close to you as possible.’ The NHS has advice on correct computer posture here. Alex also suggests that ‘If you are doing lots of typing and using the same keys repeatedly, look at setting up shortcuts or using predictive text software.’ Give your arms a rest ‘Anything which gets you out of your seat and breaks up repetitive movements will be beneficial for your general health and could help prevent RSI from developing,’ Alex says, recommending that people take breaks from their desks where possible. Evidence indicates that stress can also be a contributing factor in RSI, which has certainly been the case for me, and these breaks can help to relieve mental stress as well as the physical stress your body is under when it sits in the same position for hours at a time. Also, tempting though it may be, don’t get on your phone as soon as you take a break from your computer. Spending a lot of time typing or scrolling on a phone can be just as bad for RSI as computer work.
Some stretches you can do at home or work Alex recommends the following basic stretches you can do a couple of times a day to reduce RSI pain. He stresses that ‘No additional pain should happen from stretching so if [you experience pain] stop immediately.’
1. With straight arms, hold both hands in front of your hip area and bend the wrists to the right with the palms facing up. Lift the four fingers of your right hand with your left hand and pull up. After ten seconds, rotate the right hand by almost 180° and stop again for ten seconds. Finally, turn it forward as far as possible. Repeat this exercise on the other side, making sure not to pull up your shoulders during the exercise.
2. Press your hands against a wall and lean in with your arms straight. Rotate the hands inwards as far as possible and hold for ten seconds. Secondly, turn them upwards without lifting them from the wall, holding for another ten seconds. Finally rotate your hands outwards as far as possible, holding again for ten seconds.
Treat it ‘Therapy packs, which can be used hot or cold, can help alleviate symptoms by helping with inflammation, stiffness and soothing aches and pains,’ Alex says. ‘For day to day support, elasticated and splinted supports can help stabilise the wrist and hand, helping pain and easing symptoms.’ A physiotherapist can help advise you on what treatment would be best for you, and some may recommend a course of massage therapy or even acupuncture. They can also recommend regular exercises for you to do at home. Treating RSI requires regular effort on your part, as well as a bit of financial investment, but given that I need my body to work far more than I need a new pair of jeans, I decided that it’s money well spent.
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