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RSI: A Danger to Chronic Computer Users
by Radhika Meganathan

Return to The Writing Life · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

If the object you touch most often during a day is the mouse, you face the risk of getting Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

RSI is a non-medical term that describes disorders related to performing repetitive tasks continuously, especially in an awkward or incorrect posture. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when tendons in the wrist become inflamed after being aggravated. Inflammation of tendons due to repetitious movement of the fingers causes tendonitis, mostly because of repetitive and forceful movements of the wrist and fingers during work.

In both cases, the victim feels extreme pain even at the slightest movement of her hand. All writers should look out for signs. It usually begins with numbness or aching in the wrist, hand or arm. In extreme cases, the neck and shoulders are affected.

RSI is not an infection, nor is it a communicable disease. It can happen to anyone, with women three times more likely to develop CTS than men. The risk highly increases with age (people between the ages of 40 and 60 are more commonly affected).

Signs and causes

Cassandra Ward, records clerk for a major university hospital in Detroit, says: "My job was to file lab results into charts. I averaged 300 reports an hour, five nights a week. I started the job in May 1990. By the end of July, I was having mild tingling in my wrist and slight weakness when I tried to grip small things with my right (dominant) hand. I ignored it."

A 42-year old single mother of two toddlers at the time, Cassandra took some over-the-counter painkillers to keep going. By the beginning of November, she could no longer hold anything in her right hand and was in constant pain. Cassandra was finally diagnosed in February 1991 with DeQuervains Tendonitis. "I was on workers' compensation for three years until I could functionally use my hand again," she said.

Ward's case is not unique. Every chronic computer user with bad working practices is extremely susceptible to RSI. The irony is that RSI is easy to prevent, but very hard to cure, since remedial measures are unreliable and expensive.

The first step toward prevention is to accept that the threat of RSI is real. Try some simple and cost preventive effective measures to keep RSI at bay.

Ergonomic intelligence

According to a survey, about 76% of the writers in North America work in an uncomfortable environment, because they don't understand the risks. Computer-related Repetitive Strain Injury dominates injury compensation claims and is now termed as one of the top five occupational diseases.

To avoid becoming a statistic, opt for ergonomically designed equipment. The Dvorak keyboard and Microsoft's Natural Keyboard are designed to reduce pain. Check whether your keyboard hand height is comfortable. Investing in voice recognition software and using a trackball, instead of a mouse, can also be beneficial.

Take frequent breaks

Even with the best ergonomic workstation design, a user with bad working practices can develop RSI. Take regular breaks from your work schedule. Frequent, short breaks are more effective than sporadic, long ones. Spend at least 10 to 15 minutes every hour away from the mouse and the keyboard. Use that time to stretch your arms or even go for a short walk around the office.

Save your hands

You're more likely to develop tendonitis in a cold environment. Fingerless gloves will keep your hands and wrists warm. Every 15 to 20 minutes, give your hands and wrists a break by gently stretching and bending them. Consider learning Indian classical dance such as Bharathanatiyam or Odissi, which have a lot of moves with expressive fingers. The more you stretch your fingers, the better your chances of preventing RSI.

A nutritious, RSI-resistant diet can also help you prevent RSI. Vitamin B6 (found in chicken, beef, wheat germ, fish, peas, spinach and eggs) will keep your tendons lubricated. And as always, consult with your physician or health care professional before trying new exercises or diets.

Moral of the story

More than a decade later, Cassandra Ward still suffers sporadically from tendonitis. "If you do not become aware of it, or ignore it as I did, you can drive yourself to the point of intense, constant pain and have your hand become completely useless. While there is surgery for this condition, I did not qualify for it. The doctors assure me that I will have this condition for the remainder of my life and I am now legally disabled under the ADA laws," she said.

Do not wait for the pain to disappear by magic. Talk to a doctor, physiotherapist, or specialist. The pain may disappear when you stop using the computer, giving you a false sense of security. Understand that once started, it takes more than a therapeutic break from the computer to cure it. Stopping medication and resuming work will only make it worse.

If your livelihood depends on the computer, be sure to take all necessary precautions. Ignoring the warning signs can lead to unnecessary suffering, frequent medical visits, and high bills for treatment. Even if it's not RSI, the pain might be an indication of some other condition. Instead of repenting at leisure while in pain, nip it in the bud.

Find Out More...

Avoiding Repetitive-Stress Injuries: A Writer's Guide, by Geoff Hart

Yoga, Stretching and You, by Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz

Helpful Sites:

Computer Work Stations
Living with a computer? Design your workstation with help from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines.

A free, web-based ergonomic exercise program especially designed for computer users, combining a simple reminder program with over one hundred short animations of simple, ergonomically correct stretches and strengthening exercises.

The Typing Injury FAQ
Provides a wide variety of information about repetitive strain injuries, resources for dealing with it, and description of products to reduce injury risk and symptoms.

Disclaimer: This article in no way intends to serve as an expert diagnosis or to suggest specific avenues of treatment. If you have questions or doubts, check with your health care professional.

Copyright © 2004 Radhika Meganathan
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Radhika Meganathan is an architect from India and a freelance magazine writer, editor, eBook author, children's writer, critiquer, avid Blue Cross member and proud "Mom" to a 5-year old tabby. In 2004, she was the only writer from India to win the Highlights for Children Fellowship and attend the 20th Annual Children's Writers' Conference at Chautauqua, upstate New York. Her series of eight books, The Golden Mythology stories, were published in October 2004.


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