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Alleviate RSI the Hacker Way

by Jono Bacon
08/19/2004

Repetitive strain injury is a common health complaint among IT workers. Despite the increase in cases of RSI, it's possible to avoid the problem by taking the right steps to improve your working conditions. This article explores some of the techniques, methods, and software that you can use to help defend against this increasingly widespread issue.

Preventing RSI before it becomes a problem is quite simple; the process consists of several slight changes to the way you use your computer. Some of these steps include modifications to your working environment, and some involve special software that can help you maintain a healthy working day. Don't worry, we don't expect you to go for a 3-mile jog every day and eat rabbit food; you will simply be making changes to your existing routine. You may hardly notice these changes at all.

Identifying the Symptoms

The symptoms of RSI are fairly easy to identify, typically relating to pain or tightness in the hands and wrists. This kind of pain can often feel like a strong burning sensation. The pain often concentrates in a specific part of the hand, the area most typically affected by repetition in your daily routine. Other associated symptoms include pains and soreness across the arms, elbows, shoulders, and back.

The actual cause of these symptoms is, rather unsurprisingly, repetitive processes. These common and repeated movements often occur so fast and so often that they damage the soft muscles and nerves in your hands and wrists. The people at the greatest risk are those who use computers for many hours in a single session, especially very fast typists who do a lot of keyboard work. This group can include programmers, writers, and documentation creators. In addition to keyboards, mice and trackballs also often contribute to RSI problems; the repetitive clutching and finger movements of operating a mouse or trackball cause the same type of injuries. This naturally brings RSI into the realm of graphic designers, gamers, and other heavy mouse users. If you consider how critical a keyboard and mouse are to virtually every computer, RSI is a very real threat.

Relieving Your Symptoms

If you begin to feel pain in your hands and wrists, you can perform a few exercises and massages while you wait to see a doctor. The very first action to take if you feel any pain is to take a break. Overusing an already overused part of your hands causes RSI, so allow that part of your hand to rest.

When RSI strikes, your hands can swell due to blood not being able to reach the affected tissues. Massage is often effective in reducing this swelling. By gently massaging the area with the tip of a finger, you can help reduce this inflammation by encouraging blood to move into the affected area. Remember to be very gentle; vigorous massage could make your condition worse.

A key technique in preventing RSI is taking regular breaks. These can be normal breaks where you walk around for a few minutes; not only does this help you relax when working, but it also encourages blood to flow around your body and stretches muscles that may have kept the same posture for quite some time. A break is a span of time spent away from a computer; checking your email or chatting to a friend with instant messaging doesn't count. Stand up, walk around, stretch your muscles, and take your eyes off the screen. Experts recommend that you take a break at least once an hour.

A different kind of break is the micropause, in which you regularly stop working and rest for 10 seconds. During a micropause you don't walk around. Instead, simply rest your hands and allow the blood to flow into them. Regular micropauses will greatly reduce the pain in your hands. The biggest problem with this technique is ensuring that you pause regularly for the full 10 seconds, but free software programs can help schedule the breaks.

RSI Prevention Software

Several tools are available to help you keep regular breaks and micropauses; these tools pop up a dialog box to pester you to take a break or micropause at regular intervals. Although these tools can be infuriating on a busy day, they are important to install and use. Make every effort to take a break whenever the software prompts you to, and try to avoid disabling or ignoring the warnings. After a few days of using these tools, you'll develop the habit of obeying the prompts like the good user you are.

Most of these tools allow you to set different timings for different breaks and intervals between those breaks. Timings usually include the regularity of micropauses and the duration of each pause. Start with fairly regular micropauses (once every 30 to 60 seconds) of around 10 or 15 seconds each. You should also try to take a 2-minute break every 15 or 20 minutes.

Windows/Linux: Workrave

Workrave is a great little tool for Linux and Windows. You can configure Workrave to pester you for micropauses and normal breaks at different times. In addition to those breaks, Workrave will also monitor how long you've used the computer in order to inform you when you have reached a reasonable day's limit. Another nice feature is the ability to distribute information about your timing requirements between different systems; if you have multiple Linux and Windows machines in your office and at home, you can set a single time for the duration of your breaks across the whole network.

Mac OS X: AntiRSI

Unfortunately, Workrave is available on Mac OS X only as an X program (installed with Fink), but AntiRSI is a great alternative. Written by Onne Gorter, AntiRSI provides the same kind of functionality as Workrave (but with fewer features). AntiRSI will alert you to take micropauses and breaks. It also detects natural pauses, so it won't ask you to take too many breaks. AntiRSI is a great little tool that provides the key functionality you need in an RSI clock. When you add it to your Mac OS X dock, you will find it an invaluable tool to ensure that you take your breaks regularly.

When you have chosen the software tool that is right for you, set the timings in a way that reflects the level of RSI that you are experiencing. If have no RSI problems, you can use fewer breaks and fewer micropauses. Alternatively, if you experience frequent pain in your hands, increase the number and frequency of breaks. You should always base your timings around yourself.

If you are starting to show RSI symptoms, a good introductory set of timings is a micropause every minute for 10 seconds, a 1-minute break every 10 minutes, and a longer break once an hour. If you use these timings and your RSI does not improve, increase the number of normal breaks and increase your micropauses to once every 30 seconds. If you find that you would like to use an RSI clock for taking normal breaks but not micropauses, aim for a 1-minute break every 10 minutes and a longer break every hour. If you feel even moderate pain, always remember to stop and possibly increase the frequency of your breaks.

Irrespective of your software, you should always pay attention to your breaks and try to schedule them around your work. As an example, if you are on a deadline and need to complete some work quickly, you may be able to rest your hands but still read through a document or web site. Although this allows you to rest your hands, you do also need to take regular breaks to rest your eyes and stretch your muscles. If you can think of different techniques and methods to take your regular breaks without it interfering too much with your work, you will be able to reduce the impact of your breaks throughout the day. The key is to combine your breaks with times that you are not moving your hands or sitting in a rigid posture. Examples of this can include meetings, toilet breaks, lunchtime, and coffee breaks.

Creating a Better Environment

Your working environment plays an important role in preventing RSI problems. The scope of this environment extends to your chair, desk, lights, keyboard, mouse, other input devices, monitor, and various other equipment that you use regularly. The positioning and use of these elements can affect your ease of working, in different and related ways. For example, an incorrectly positioned chair can have a negative effect on your shoulders, which in turn can cause you pain lower down on your arms when you use the keyboard or mouse.

When you try to improve the ergonomics of your environment, there is a temptation to rush out and buy all manner of equipment. Although many of these gadgets do help, correct posture and seat placement will have a far greater effect on your body than any number of devices. The key to this posture is in keeping your body and arms straight.

Desk and Chair

When you sit at your computer, check that your back is straight; you should not be slouching or leaning back. With your back in this position, now adjust the rear of your chair to support your back and prevent the chair from rocking or pushing back. Next, check your arms. If you drop your arms to your side and bend your elbows, your arms should ideally be straight, virtually right-angled. Ensure that your fingers are not bent upward or downward, and keep your wrists straight rather than at an angle. You may need to adjust your chair's height to keep your arms in line with the desk. It is always a good idea to spend any RSI-related budget on a good, comfortable, and adjustable chair.

No matter how correct it may be, any rigidly enforced posture will be bad if you stay in that position for a long period of time. Remember to move, adjust, and relax throughout the day. Sitting bolt upright for too long can worsen the situation; the goal is to find an approximate posture and intersperse it with regular muscle movement and plenty of breaks.

Keyboard

The keyboard is a primary area in which you need to check your positioning. First be sure that your wrists are straight, not bent in any way. You'll feel pain in the back of your hand if your wrists are positioned incorrectly. Some researchers believe that the legs on the rear of a keyboard can actually cause some RSI problems and that a flat keyboard is better. Experiment with the legs up and down, but always remember to keep your wrists straight.

When you type, always tap the keys gently. Many people hammer away at their keyboards; this can cause stress in the fingers. You should also ensure that the base of your hand does not rest on the table while typing. If you rest your hands, you will find that your fingers will bend at an awkward angle when typing.

Conclusion

RSI is complex and multifaceted. No single technique can banish RSI from your body, but a combination of these ideas can work wonders. Better seat placement, new keyboard posture, and regular breaks will help combat the risks and allow you to use your computer safely for longer.

Although these methods are proven and helpful, a large proportion of IT workers still fail to see the importance of RSI prevention. They'll eventually have to learn. By using a combination of the methods and software discussed in this article, you can take the first line of defense against the problem. Good luck!

Further links

Jono Bacon is an award-winning leading community manager, author and consultant, who has authored four books and acted as a consultant to a range of technology companies. Bacon's weblog (http://www.jonobacon.org/) is one of the widest read Open Source weblogs.


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