This advice comes from Dora Farkas, Ph.D.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a silent epidemic in the workplace, as well as in universities, caused primarily by excessive typing. In its most severe form, an injured person might not be able to write or even hold a pen without pain. Many of you readers probably do not suffer from RSI (and possibly have not heard of it either), but you have probably experienced stiff backs or necks after typing for extended periods of time. Muscle fatigue and stiffness are the first warning signs of RSI, and if you address them as soon as they occur, you will significantly decrease your chances of developing this debilitating condition.
Strategies for reducing pain in your back, neck, shoulders, arms and hands:
- Seek support of a medical professional.
The most common symptoms of RSI include pain, fatigue, tingling, numbness, clumsiness, and coldness in your arms and hands. If you experience any discomfort during or after typing, it is important to tell your doctor immediately because these symptoms can worsen quickly during periods of stress, and the sooner you seek treatment, the sooner you can alleviate your pain. You can also develop RSI from playing certain sports or instruments, and a medical professional or coach can give you ideas on reducing muscle strain.
- Set up an ergonomic workstation.
At the end of this brief, I list some sites where you can find ergonomic office equipment. First, find out whether your university offers an ergonomic workstation evaluation. They might also have special keyboards and mice available to loan out to students, so you could try them out before purchasing. Remember that the more comfortable you are in front of a workstation, the more productive you will be, so spend sufficient time figuring out the right set-up for your body type. If your arms hurt from pipetting, see the resources section about ergonomic pipets.
- Evaluate your exercise routine.
Exercise can either improve or aggravate the symptoms of RSI. In general, aerobics and stretching increase circulation and enhance healing, but you can also re-injure yourself if you do not do the exercises properly. If you are injured, it is best to ask your doctor or physical therapist about an appropriate workout routine.
- Take regular breaks and enforce them with a timer or software if necessary.
Many students find that alternating 45 minutes of work with 15 minute breaks helps to keep them sharp throughout the day. Use your breaks to drink water and stretch your limbs. One very important reason to take your breaks regularly is that you might not feel pain in your arms until after you have stopped typing. Thus, it is important to stop for 15 minutes every hour and assess how your body is doing. Some students enforce these breaks with timers or break-software.
- Limit recreational computer use.
As a former student who suffered from RSI, I know how difficult it is to recover from this injury while trying to finish your thesis. After I became injured, I realized how much recreational time most people spend on the computer: instant messaging, social networking, emailing, and computer games, just to name a few. During my last semester, every minute at the computer had to count, and I reduced recreational computer use to an absolute minimum. Now that I have recovered, I still limit my time at the computer. As a result, my injury has healed, and I focus better on my work while I am in front of a workstation.
- Address the areas in your life that contribute to stress.
Many people do not realize that there is a psychological component of RSI. Anxiety increases muscle tension, so it is not surprising that RSI develops frequently during periods of stress (e.g. last semester of graduate school). This is another reason that it is important to take breaks, because a break gives you the opportunity to stretch and do some deep breathing. If there are significantly stressful situations in your life, you might need to address them in order to alleviate tension in your body.
Resources to help you set up an ergonomic workstation and treat repetitive strain injury:
RSI Guard: rsiguard.com
Books about RSI:
Dr. Pascarelli's Complete Guide to Repetitive Strain Injury: What You Need to Know About RSI and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome by Emil Pascarelli
It's Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome! RSI Theory & Therapy for Computer Professionals by Suparna Damany and Jack Bellis.
About the author: Dora Farkas, Ph.D., is the author of The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates, she completed both her Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Toxicology at MIT. After earning her Ph.D. she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics at Tufts University in Boston.