Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a blanket term covering a range of conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and bursitis, all of which involve damage and inflammation to tendons, nerves, muscles and soft tissues.
It is prevalent among office workers. One study in Canada estimates that one in 10 keyboard workers suffers from RSI at some time in any 12-month period (Health Rep, 2003; 14: 11-30) - but it can affect anyone who does repetitive work that requires keeping the body at an awkward angle, such as construction workers, musicians and dentists; even carpet weavers in Iran have been singled out as potential victims (Int J Occup Saf Ergon, 2004; 10: 65-78).
Your last chance to prevent a serious onset of RSI is when you feel the first twinges of pain, or possibly a tightening or stiffness in your hands, wrists, fingers, forearms or elbows.
So, as soon as you feel the pain, or if you’re involved in repetitive work, these are some of the things you can do:
* Be body conscious. Our body is wonderful at unconsciously compensating for poor posture or the uncomfortable positions we put ourselves in. Make sure that your body is sitting properly, and that your keyboard and monitor are positioned correctly. We should look down on monitors, and they should be at least an arm’s length from us.
Chairs and keyboards should be set so that the thighs and forearms are level; the wrists should remain straight when we type, and not be bent down or back, and they shouldn’t be resting on anything when typing. The back should be straight and not slouching, and you shouldn’t be stretching forward. Before you begin work, warm up your muscle groups with a few simple exercises, just as you would prepare before beginning a workout at a gym.
* Move around. Even a good posture and ergonomics won’t give you a licence to sit and type for eight hours a day. You need to move, stand up and walk around - one software developer has even devised a programme that alerts you to your next ‘walkaround’. You can set an alarm on your computer, mobile phone or digital watch to do the same thing.
* Exercise. You need to strengthen your muscles, and increase your vitality and stamina, especially as you grow older. Get advice from an instructor at your local gym. Concentrate on the muscle groups that hold your shoulders back, your arms up and extend your fingers. Motion exercises known as ‘glides’, where you move your arm from one position to another, are also helpful.
* Get a massage. Build sessions of regular massage by a trained therapist into your routine. Deep-muscle and fascia-release massage is especially helpful, and can even reduce pain if you already suffer from RSI.
* Eliminate adhesions. These ‘knots’ can trap the nerves, but they can be worked on with vigorous and localised massage. Ideally, a therapist should do this, but it’s something you can also do yourself. If you are feeling pain, pinch the area and, while holding firmly onto it, perform the movement that the muscle would allow you to do.
* Take your Bs. The B vitamins are especially good for bones and muscles. B1, B6 and B12 are particularly beneficial, but you need to take up to 100 mg three times a day.
* Get the balance right. RSI is also a symptom that we’re getting our priorities wrong. Work and workloads need to be put into perspective, and you need to find time for yourself and your other interests. Simple relaxation techniques, yoga and meditation can all help de-stress you and your body.