Repetitive strain injuries, they just keep repeating

Runners expect to get injured.  That doesn’t mean we like it – or that we don’t complain bitterly and try everything imaginable to ignore the twinge of the day until it’s no longer just a twinge and is now impossible to deny.  But if we’ve ever met just one other runner or read just one article on running we know that it happens.  Running is the granddaddy of activities that cause repetitive strain; you keep putting that foot down, repeating the process of putting it down not quite right over and over, thousands upon thousands of times, until your foot or something farther up from your foot starts complaining.  None of this is surprising when you stop and realize that if you run for an hour at an average pace, each foot is hitting the ground at least 5000 times, with your full weight behind it.  We like to call our running injuries overuse injuries, which is appropriate, but they are also, for the most part, repetitive strain injuries (RSI).

We’re used to hearing that term in conjunction with the workplace, especially with the use of computers.  There have been many occupations with a susceptibility to RSI that preceded computers by decades, including construction workers using heavy tools with lots of repetitive motion, hair dressers, physiotherapists, virtually anyone who spends many hours each day with their extremities in raised positions and/or doing repetitive tasks.  But once nearly every office dweller started spending most of the day in front of the ubiquitous computer screen, all those people became potential RSI candidates.

As a retired computer science professor and administrator who spent (and obviously still spends) lots of time at a computer, I was fair game, as were (and still are) most students and colleagues.  Nowadays we all know about the importance of ergonomics to prevent or reduce RSI; we just don’t always practice it.  I’m afraid I fall squarely in the camp of those who should work harder at ensuring good ergonomics and paying attention to small twinges, but this is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” areas.  I am actually good at encouraging others to ensure they create ergonomically-correct workspaces for themselves, but I seem to keep missing the mark.  How else can I use my computer, have the company of my husband and watch TV all at the same time?!

But, despite the fact that I haven’t been a star at preventing RSI, I do have lots of recovery experience I can pass on, in the hopes that you, dear readers, will take good care of yourselves.

arm-v4What can happen to you if you’re not careful?  You can get carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes severe pain in your hand and wrist.  To recover you get to ice your hand, take lots of ibuprofen, and get to wear attractive splints such as the one I’m modelling below.  For months and months.  And then of course you need to improve the ergonomics of your chair, keyboard, and mouse.

You can get tennis elbow, even though you’re not playing tennis.  To recover, you get to ice your arm near your elbow, take lots of ibuprofen, and wear a band around your arm, such as one shown with other RSI devices in my collection.  Stop using that arm for some period of time.  And then of course you need to improve the ergonomics of your chair and position of your mouse.

Some items from my collection of RSI aids

Some items from my collection of RSI aids

You can get frozen shoulder and shoulder impingement, which I really don’t wish on anyone.  To recover, you get to ice your shoulder and upper arm as often as possible, take lots of ibuprofen, make frequent trips to a physiotherapist, and do exercises your physio gives you, often including physio bands like the yellow one featured in my RSI collection.  me-v5Oh yeah, and sleep on lots of pillows, since it tends to hurt more when you’re lying down.  It can take anywhere from 6-24 months to recover.  It seems that the poor posture we assume when rolled forward towards our computer screens is one of the main culprits in bringing on shoulder impingement.  Among other things you should be wary of is using your computer while sitting on the floor in front of your coffee table.  It turns out that your arms are heavy, heavier than your shoulders like when you are reaching out to use the mouse frequently – OK, very frequently.  Not a good idea, more’s the pity.  It’s deceptively comfortable!

Bottom line: just as with overuse injuries in your lower extremities from running, your upper extremities do notice when you abuse them.  The good news is that you will recover from these “setbacks”.  For the most part.  The not-so-good news is that they’re really painful and require time, often endless amounts of time, whether it’s recovering from a running injury or a computer-related RSI.  With running, good form makes a difference.  Similarly, with upper-body RSI, good ergonomics is key.  With both of them, making sure you take breaks from those repetitive activities is key.  To take a break from running, there are many cross-training suggestions.  To take a break from keying and mousing, it may not be as easy when you’re at work, and we know how addictive our non-work-related computing activities are to us.  But breaks are essential.  Try writing on paper for awhile or talking to someone on the phone – or down the hall – from time to time instead of emailing.  Put ergonomics and good practices on your to-do list.  Do as I say, not as I do.  Your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders will thank you. 🙂

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15 Responses to Repetitive strain injuries, they just keep repeating

  1. jane tims says:

    Hi Jane. I have so much trouble getting up from the computer and moving around. My dietician suggested setting a timer, but I can’t get up and go to the kitchen to find it !!!! Arthritis in my knees is my big nemesis, but all the stationary biking I am doing is helping. Jane

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Your stationary bike travels are truly brilliant in every way! I’m pretty sure you could set an alarm in your computer to buzz for you, but that would spoil the fun, wouldn’t it? 🙂

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  5. Our jobs are particularly bad for RSI. eTeaching requires you to spend a lot of time in front of a computer and it takes a toll on c5-7 in the neck as well as the ones in the lower back. We are finding that sit-stand solutions offer some good help in that area:
    This one, from Ergotron allows us to convert an existing workstation to a sit-stand one. The upper surface is important to us because we place the wacom graphics tablet (essential for writing on the electronic whiteboard during synchronous classes) Around $500
    This one from Anthrocart is great for ‘new starts’ it enables sit-stand and costs about the same (around $1500) as a L-shaped desk, so popular today.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      True, it’s an occupational hazzard for sure. And we’re not good at stopping or at pushing ergonomic improvements, Thanks for these useful links, Maurice. I hope readers make good use of them.

  6. Heyjude says:

    Having suffered a frozen shoulder for a couple of years I wouldn’t wish that on anyone! I even had to give up driving a manual gear car as it was too painful to change gears! Worse thing for RSI that I have found is using a mouse!!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You were smarter than I was. I actually drove up a hill using my outside arm to shift gears once; I should have been ticketed for dangerous driving! But when it came time to buy a new car – and my shoulders were more or less better, at the time – I couldn’t bring myself to switch to automatic. I completely agree about the mouse. I’m looking for an alternate solution as we speak.

  7. Goodness! Who’d have thought that writing could be so dangerous? I actually did have carpal tunnel last year though – really horrible! Ergonomics here I come – really don’t want a frozen shoulder. Thanks for making me think of something that would never had occurred to me.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, it’s not fair, is it! Having gone through it all, in some cases more than once and even after I should have known better, it is definitely worth paying attention to. Sigh!

  8. alesiablogs says:

    OH my gosh–you must have heard me complaining to my instructor~!
    I have central nervous pain so sometimes I can not tell the difference, but for the most part I am not yet overdoing it. WE are just beginning running ….It is a very slow process, but I am hopeful or BIG results…..NIce write up..YOU should have been a PT!

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