My Brush With RSI

RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) is the bogeyman of software developers’ worst nightmares. I think everyone knows someone, or of someone, who was once a great programmer and is now a primary teacher, porter or some such, and all because of this RSI thing. So here’s my experience, because it came true and happened to me.

My experience

I have typed for in excess of ten hours a day, for weeks at a time, at a number of times in my life. Since graduating three years ago I’ve worked exclusively in development of different kinds. Since long before that I have been able to touch type and took jobs as a temporary secretary and typist during my university holidays. So I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to serious typing requirements in the past and no problems.

I first noticed a problem about three months after starting a new job, I had aches and tingles in my fourth and little fingers in both hands. This turned into a feeling of having my hands attached to my arms wrongly – I kept trying to “click” my wrist joints into place all the time and it was getting quite painful. We do have funny furniture at work since the company’s main business is manufacturing furniture, unfortunately not for offices1, and I just couldn’t make it fit me.

I requested a review of my workstation and over the next few weeks a series of people came and measured the space, prodded me and my chair around, fidgeted with my keyboard and generally wrung their hands in despair. It took five weeks for any modification to be made to my desk and by that time I was on some very strong anti-inflammatory medication following a diagnosis of tendonitis and eventually had to call in sick for a few days as my hands were so painful I couldn’t even put the mon the keyboard. I’d like to point out at this stage that I am not in any way criticising my employer, my work area is hard to modify and it is a large organisation which by definition means that it takes time for the bureaucracy to get its internal cogs turning.

When I went to see the doctor I had pains in my fingers, wrists, elbows and also kind of between the two bones in my arm (like what you get after playing badminton when you haven’t for ages). I also lost all grip in my hands, I couldn’t get the top of a bottle of milk or squash or hold anything heavy (like a pan of water). It was horrible but he assured me that I was unlikely to suffer lasting damage and prescribed anti-inflammatories and as much rest as was possible. By this time I wasn’t posting to this site, working on any of my other coding projects, or even doing any crochet. Even holding a book to read was quite painful!

After my desk had been modified, my hands immediately became much less painful although discomfort remains today (two months later). My employer had me see their doctor and he advised that the damage to the tendons was likely to take some time to recover and I might expect some discomfort for a couple of months. In fact this is the case and I am now finding that an ordinary wrist support helps quite a bit, but my hands are painful after a few days of typing. Coding and sql-querying are much worse than straightforward prose, such as this article, I think because the keyboard is laid out to make words easy and punctuation not necessarily so!

At home I use the laptop and sit wherever I like – usually on my feet, sounds daft but I’ve coded for years curled into a ball and it seems to work! I use an external shallow action keyboard (like a laptop one, the keys don’t go down very far) placed on my knee on a cushion which seems to bring it to a comfortable height. I use Opera which can be controlled pretty much entirely from the keyboard, its got plenty of keyboard shortcuts and also spatial link navigation where you just hold down shift and press the arrow keys to navigate a page’s links. Its great and means I don’t have to use a mouse – I don’t think its the mouse that’s the problem but switching between the two certainly provokes a twinge.

In Conclusion

Well I’ll update this article as things improve but for now I think its enough to say that I’m still programming and feel that I can continue to do so as a full-time occupation. I am still suffering the same pains but I was warned it might take time to heal so fingers crossed (I can still do that!) that’s all it is. I wanted to write about this as its a big issue for programmers and other keyboard-users and I really felt I benefitted from their stories and honesty. I almost feel like the whole thing was a bad dream, and hopefully that’s all it will be in the future – just a dream.

1 Actually we make kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, so the offices are miscellaneous drawers with a kitchen worktop on top – it works a lot better than it sounds!

2 thoughts on “My Brush With RSI

  1. I’ve been meaning to post on my own blog about my RSI-like troubles for ages, but my blog hasn’t been the most important thing on my mind in recent months. In the interest of not taking over your blog, I think I’ll probably post more info on this to my blog soon. Instead, I’ll give a few useful links for things that I found helpful.

    I replaced my tiny mouse with a nice, big trackball – the Kensington Expert Mouse. It’s great, and also a little more accurate for working in Photoshop I find. I don’t normally like wrist supports, but the trackball comes with one you can attach if you wish, which I like and use.

    I also bought a pair of Handeze gloves to help relieve the pain in my hands while typing. I still find these useful when I get particularly bad aches in my hands, but I’m using them less often now.

    The almighty healer – time. I was able to find a bit of breathing space in the midst of a particularly tricky project to take some time out from all computer work. I wanted two weeks really, but a week away from computer keyboards did wonders.

    I’m still not fully free of the occasional aches, but I’m a lot better than I was. I’m now also using Workrave to get me to take regular breaks and do exercises.

    Dictation software can also help reduce the amount you have to type, but it’s not something I’ve been able to justify cost-wise.

    There’s also a popular opinion that RSI has strong psychological roots, stemming from theory by one Dr Sarno. Interesting reading, even if it seems a little new-age.

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