When technology attacks

Previous versions of my site included an article about repetitive strain injury (RSI), and I’ve just realised that the move to a Blogger-based format means the article has disappeared. So here it is in all its glory: it was written in a rush so the grammar and spelling may not be up to my usual standards :-)

I’ve just completed a large feature on RSI for PC Plus magazine, which you can download here (pdf file). This blog entry’s a much shorter and more opinionated version.

When Technology Attacks
Coping with RSI

I’ve had RSI for more than ten years now, and a few years ago it had got to the point where I could only work under the influence of horse tranquilisers (well, powerful – and slightly hallucinogenic – painkillers designed for chronic arthritis). Then I learned a number of strategies that help keep it at bay, and I’ve been pretty much OK for a few years now.

RSI isn’t a disease as such: it’s a catch-all term for a number of work related injuries such as tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger and so on. Generally speaking it’s damage caused by making the same movements again and again at high speed, often in conjunction with bad posture. Untrained typists (ie, most computer users) are particularly at risk, and journalists most of all – the combination of deadlines and long working hours means that RSI is a particular hazard for hacks.

The list below summarises what I’ve learned over and above the basics (ensuring that you’re sitting properly, that you’re not craning your neck to peer at the monitor and so on). Needless to say, it’s no substitute for proper medical advice.

1. Get away from the computer. Wherever possible, avoid doing any computer work at nights or at weekends. The only real way to cure RSI is to stop doing the stuff that causes it, but you can manage it if you stick to some kind of work routine and keep non-computer time sacred. Easier said than done, I know – but it works.

2. Try a new keyboard and stick it on a lowered tray. Look for a fast one – one that you don’t have to hammer with all your strength. Logitech’s Internet Navigator works for me. Apple Pro keyboards are pretty good, too, and if you can track down a MacAlly IceKey (they’re very hard to find at the moment) they’re better still.

3. Move the mouse. The worst RSI symptoms are in my right hand, which is my mouse hand. Moving the mouse so it’s dead centre on the desk means I move it less and I’m not putting the entire weight of my arm on my right wrist. It’s also a pretty foolproof way of encouraging you to learn keyboard shortcuts for everything.

4. It’s tempting to neck painkillers so you can work, but it just means you’re doing even more damage; suitably medicated, you’re no longer aware of your body screaming at you. Avoid homeopathic stuff – it’s all nonsense and often makes the RSI worse – but make sure you’re eating properly. If you’re run down, your RSI is likely to flare up.

5. If you smoke, make your work area non-smoking. That way, whenever you want a cigarette you’ve got to go away from the computer: instant keyboard break. Same applies to coffee, beer, whatever – keep it away from the computer so you’ve got less incentive to sit in front of the screen all day.

6. Sleep properly. Of all the things I’ve tried, getting plenty of sleep is the single most powerful weapon against RSI. My RSI only comes back these days if I’ve been caning it a wee bit too much.

7. Laptops are evil: their keyboards are rotten [edit- by that I mean small laptops tend to have cramped keyboards; if you’ve got a 17″ monster, then you can ignore that comment], and their screens are too low. If you’ve got to use one, stick a decent keyboard on it and sit the computer on top of something so the screen’s higher than usual (I use a Griffin iCurve so that my laptop screen’s level with my second monitor). Touchpads are the work of the devil where RSI is concerned, as is too much text messaging on a mobile phone.

8. If you’re driving, try to use an automatic instead of a manual transmission. It makes a big difference if your RSI flares up.

9. Avoid games. It’s too easy to spend eight hours solid in front of Doom III, but it’s something you’ll regret later.

I can’t guarantee that this stuff will work for you; all I can say is that if I’d known this stuff ten years ago then I’d have saved a fortune on painkillers and I wouldn’t have wasted so much time being patronised by doctors. These days, RSI isn’t really a problem for me; hopefully you’ll sort yours out too.

Other people’s suggestions

This article started off as an email conversation with Danny O’Brien, who suggested that I upload the list to the Web. If anybody has any other tips, please get in touch and I’ll add them to this page (fully credited, of course).

Grant Barrett writes: “Accelerate the mouse/touchpad/nipple to the highest speed possible, even if it means installing software to make it hyper. If possible, change the algorithm so that the speed of your mouse movements are less linked to the distance the cursor travels. It should be as close to 1:1 as possible. (Kensington Mouseworks software for Mac OS 9 and OS X permits this, and can be used without a Kensington mouse). It takes a day or two to get used to, but the advantage is that the cursor will respond to micro-movements. It no longer require desk-clearing arm gestures to get from one corner of the screen to another. A tiny flick of a finger on a touch pad can move the cursor anywhere.”