“I’ll type until my fingers fall off!” It’s a joke among those who write code, or work in front of computers for a living. But with increasing awareness of repetitive strain injury out there in our community, the joke frankly is less funny than it used to be. Do we need to be more aware of this than we are? And what are good techniques for handling RSI?
I think that a lot of people still think that RSI is a bit of a myth, you know? There’s this kind of misconception, particularly in the IT world, that RSI is merely weak people complaining about their fingers, and it really isn’t.
Yeah, it’s like “Aww, you typed so much that your fingers hurt.” People imagine it’s – if you poked a wall really hard, it makes the end of your finger hurt, obviously. And people think RSI is basically like that, and then if you actually look into it you think, “Oh okay, your shoulder hurts so much that you can’t move your arms…and that’s because you type a lot.” There is this, like you say, this sneaky feeling in a lot of people that it’s a bit of a myth, it doesn’t really happen, and if it does happen, it only happens to other people.
It really does happen, and I’ve definitely had it. When I was a journalist, four or five years ago, I had to write a lot during the day. I was probably writing about two, two and a half thousand words a day. I really only got it in my hands, but I could feel where – you know that fatty, webbed kind of space between your thumb and your first finger? That would just really hurt, to the point where when I typed, I could feel my fingers aching, and it got in the way of me being able to do my work. And then I went to the doctor and he was like, “Yep, you’ve got RSI.” Have you had it?
No, I’ve never had a problem with it, ever, which is nice. I know it causes pain for a lot of people. I know a lot of people who have suffered with it, and it seems very much to be one of those things where if you’re once bitten, you’re twice shy; if you’ve ever suffered with it, you then become a religious nutter on the subject of taking a break every hour, and so on. So it doesn’t really seem to be a problem. You can tell someone who has had RSI in the past because they have all this technology to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, because it was a really, really big problem for them.
The risks are pretty significant because it really can – I mean, if you think about it, your primary interface with a computer is a mouse and a keyboard, and when it hurts to interact with the mouse and the keyboard, if you work in IT or writing or something like that or you have to use a computer, it’s a real risk. It can affect your career, it can affect your income, and all the rest of it.
Yeah, it stops you doing your job, it stops you doing your hobbies, and this is something that we need to be serious about. And we’ve looked at other potential risks to people in our community before, we’ve talked about overuse of caffeine and things like that, and RSI is another one. It’s something where there is a grudging acceptance of the fact that it’s important, I think. Still, we aren’t seeing enough people take preemptive action against it; it’s, “Oh, I’ll wait until it happens to me and then become a believer.” But, what should you be doing – now this is not meant to be a health documentary or anything – but if you think about just the standard stuff you can do, what have you done to try and avoid the problem?
One of the first things we should talk about is, the common advice is just move around regularly and take regular breaks, and that kind of stuff, and I think for a lot of us, that’s actually quite hard. Just speaking personally, I don’t take any breaks during the day – none. I don’t even take a break at lunch time, I eat my lunch while working. I think it’s very common in the IT world to do that, but it is really important to kind of sit back every so often, and rest your hands for a few minutes, and stuff like that. In terms of your back, to get up and move around and get the blood moving to your legs and all that kind of stuff.
Well if you read advice, it’s all very much “Once every hour, you should take a 5-minute break and go and have a walk,” and you think “Well yeah, but I’ve got a job to do, I can’t be potting around in the garden; I’ve actually got to do stuff.” If you think about it, just make sure you get up and make a cup of tea, or a cup of coffee, and then when you do that, you’ll be walking around. Walk down to the nearest Starbucks in the morning and grab something, and then walk down again just before lunch, and then go out for lunch. It doesn’t have to be, “I am going to take a break to avoid RSI now,” just don’t sit motionless in a chair for 4 or 5 hours at a time. But I’ll find myself doing that, I’ll think, “God, I haven’t moved out of this chair for five hours, apart from to get another packet of cigarettes; I probably ought to not do that.” The obvious first thing is just moving to do other things counts; it doesn’t have to be an explicit work break. Just go and get a cup of tea, and then while the kettle’s boiling, stand and look out the window rather than continuing to type. The second thing, the obvious thing that people jump for is technology to help you solve it. There are dozens of little programs, WorkRave is a good old one, but there are programs for every desktop thing.
Yeah, WorkRave is really good, when I had my experience in RSI I installed WorkRave on my computer back then, and I found that it was actually pretty helpful. The idea with WorkRave, for people who aren’t familiar with it, is that it will force you to take two types of breaks. One is like a regular break, so at the end of every hour, it will tell you to piss off for five minutes. But then these things called micropauses, which is where every thirty seconds or so, it’ll basically lock your screen for about five seconds, or two seconds or whatever it might be, and it just forces you to stop working. The medical reason is (particularly in your hands), the reason you get RSI is because blood basically builds up in that fatty part, like I said between your thumb and your forefinger in many cases, and it causes it to bruise. So when you take a break, the blood manages to flow, and it stops that buildup.
Yeah, so WorkRave is a good example, I don’t think it makes you stop every 30 seconds, does it?
When I was using it, it was literally once every 30 seconds, or a minute. You can configure it though.
That’s one obvious thing, it actually locks you out of your screen, and that’s not a bad thing. The interesting thing though is, you say, “When I was having the problem, I had WorkRave,” which sounds to me a lot like “Now that I don’t have the problem, I don’t use WorkRave anymore.”
Yeah it is, because I do a lot of typing during the day, but I don’t type anywhere near as much as I used to. Like I said, I used to do two and a half thousand words or so of just article writing, that didn’t include email. I was typing a lot more back then, and I think it was not so much the quantity of the typing, but just more compressed bouts of typing. I would spend an hour typing like a demon, and then I’d take a break for a while, and I think that’s what caused the problems. But no, I don’t use WorkRave anymore, because I don’t experience RSI issues, but we’ll get on to that in a bit.
Right. So, we’ve talked about just getting up and walking around, and finding things to do that aren’t just directly typing, and we’ve talked about software that can jump in and help you out, so what else is there?
This is what I’m convinced cured me of RSI – and cured is a strong word, but I’m going to use it – and that’s reflexology. So the story goes, I was experiencing RSI, I went to the doctor and the doctor said, I’m going to refer you to a specialist. So I went to the hospital, and the specialist talked about making a cast, that you put over your hands and it basically positions your thumb and your fingers in the right way, and she said “Look, you can do this but it doesn’t really work for everybody. What I’d recommend is reflexology.” Basically, I went to this woman called Lynn, who was based somewhere outside Wolverhampton, and she gave me an Indian head massage, which is the top of your shoulders and the back of your head, and my feet as well. The idea with reflexology is that parts of your body, like parts of your feet reflect to parts of your body, like a part of your foot reflects to your heart or your arm or something. And I was thinking this was some sort of cous-cous eating, hippie bullshit. But I went along, and I tried it, and I had two or three sessions where she was massaging me for an hour, and my RSI just completely vanished. Literally. It never came back.
Okay, well, I don’t want to get into a debate about whether this thing that you’ve described is actually as bullshit as it sounds or not, but the point is that it worked for you, and maybe it would work for others.
Yeah it could work for other people; it may not work for everybody, but for me, I found it incredibly successful.
Do you think that there’s enough awareness of the issue in the community? I honestly don’t think there is. It needs to be socially enforced; we talked about this with caffeine, and burnout and that sort of thing. You need people around you to say “Jesus, just stop typing for five minutes man, go out and take a walk.”
Yeah, exactly. Get some exercise, eat some vegetables, live a healthy life. But no, I don’t think there’s enough awareness of this issue. But you know what, that’s what we think.