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.
What 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.
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. Oh 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. 🙂