Managing a Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) as a Web Developer
It’s weird to think that I’ve been interacting with a computer in some fashion since 1996. If you do the math, that’s 24 years of computer usage. The first 16 years were relatively painless, aside from the occasional term paper in college. Suddenly after college, computers went from a source of enjoyment (and at that point, income), to a source of physical pain. Here’s my story of what happened, why it happened, and how I’m now able to stay relatively pain free as a web developer.
When and How the Pain Began
For years, I worked from a laptop in a manner that did not involve a true desk, and I never thought twice about it. What college kid didn’t spend countless hours typing papers from the comfort of their living room couch? No one had ever said a thing about ergonomics in school, so why not work from a couch, bed, counter, or floor? Desks were so overrated.
The first time I started to experience pain from using a computer was in late 2012. I was a few months into running my first web design business and the wrist on my mouse-hand started to hurt. I had broken my right wrist the year before, so I just assumed any pain I was experiencing must be due to the previous injury. I slapped on my post-surgery wrist brace and kept pushing on with work, not thinking twice.
The pain in my right wrist seemed to go away within a week or two. Several months later, after spending at least an hour a day editing photos for many weeks in a row, the pain returned to my right wrist with even more ferocity. Again, I pushed on with what I had been doing.
Now, let’s fast forward to the summer of 2013, when I started working for a software startup. I was working crazy hours, most of which was from an Adirondack chair on my lanai in Hawaii. I could literally hear the powerful waves on Oahu’s North Shore from my lanai office setup. It was a dream, only it was becoming a bad dream because just touching my laptop caused excruciating pain in my wrists and finger tips.
The pain was so bad and so constant that I could barely even use my iPad to read when I wasn’t working. What was going on? I had no idea. I still didn’t read much into the poor ergonomics of my scenic “workstation”. If I felt any kind of muscle tightness in my back or shoulders, then a quick surf would fix that. Little did I know that tight muscles were sending signals elsewhere.
I kept working for months, and the pain only continued to get worse. I tried stretching my hands, but this didn’t seem to do anything. I just assumed it was stress related (which was partially true) and that the pain would go away as my stress subsided. Besides, I was in my early twenties. I figured that it was far too early in life for arthritis or something similar to kick in.
At the beginning of 2014, I decided to give a desk a shot. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this, as I far preferred feeling like I was out in the world when working from my lanai. Nonetheless, I started working from a desk with an external monitor. This helped, but it certainly did not cure my issues.
By 2015, I was back on the east coast and working for Storyware. I was traveling a lot when I returned to the east coast, so it was rare that I ever worked from a desk. I spent much of my time in Starbucks, which isn’t exactly the home of ergonomic workstations. The pain in my hands reached such a level that I started to question my career choice.
Discovering the the Culprit: Repetitive Stress Injury
I tried everything: soaking my hands and arms in ice, an ergonomic keyboard, a vertical mouse, and a nerve study. It was the nerve study that led to results. My nerve study came back just fine, but the doctor who evaluated my nerve study introduced me to the concept of “trigger points”, which is when irritated muscles can actually trigger pain elsewhere in the body. He referred me to an occupational therapist.
The occupational therapist discovered that constant typing and mousing combined with poor ergonomics had led to some incredibly tight muscles in my neck and my back. She explained that this was a classic case of RSI, or Repetitive Strain Injury. The concept of RSI was news to me, but it made perfect sense. Healthline.com says this about RSI, “a repetitive strain injury (RSI), sometimes referred to as repetitive stress injury, is a gradual buildup of damage to muscles, tendons, and nerves from repetitive motions.”
After all of those years, it turns out that the pain in my hands had nothing to do with my hands. It was all due to overworked muscles in my neck and shoulders. When you’re typing it may seem like your hands are doing most of the work, but those hands of yours are connected to muscles that run all the way up to your shoulders and down your back. Everything is connected in the human body. I was so relieved to finally find something that made sense of the pain I had been living with for years.
How Did I Manage My RSI?
First off, I purchased a standing desk. This was a huge move. The standing desk enabled me to vary my work position, which then works my muscles in different ways. Second, I loaded up on ergonomic gear for my home office, and for when I was traveling and working in coffee shops. I pretty much stopped using the keyboard and trackpad on my laptop. Even to this day, I rarely use the trackpad on my laptop; it’s just not worth the strain that it puts on my body. Third, I started taking regular breaks for stretching. Fourth, I took up both yoga and rock climbing. Both activities are great for not only stretching out my upper body, but also building core and upper body strength.
After about a year, my level of on-going pain had greatly decreased. I still experienced some pain while working, but it was manageable and did not limit what I did outside of work. Nonetheless, I wanted this to go away entirely. In order to expedite the process I started seeing a massage therapist at least twice a month. Albeit expensive, the massage therapy was extremely helpful and showed me just how quickly muscles could knot back up after releasing.
The massage therapy combined with stretching and ergonomics was getting me closer to being pain free, but I still wanted more. I decided to swap massage therapy with chiropractic medicine. The chiropractor experience was pretty great. This particular chiropractor not only did what I refer to as “the crackin’”, but he also incorporated physical therapy into each care plan. Six months of chiropractic medicine combined with physical therapy did me well, but I still had pain. My chiropractor was puzzled; my flexibility had greatly improved and my muscles had relaxed quite a bit. In his eyes, I should have been pain free.
Then, an x-ray showed some odd behavior in my neck movements. It turns out that back in college, when I was thrown from a golf cart in a freak golf course maintenance accident — my spine saw some minor changes around my neck. Long story short, my neck muscles have to work a little extra to keep things in alignment and to keep nerves from getting irritated. So, I worked on the neck exercises a bit harder for a few weeks. Let this discovery be a lesson; everyone’s body is different and yours could have unique challenges, too.
Instead of extending my care plan with the chiropractor or going back to massage therapy, I opted to give my muscles a break from intense manipulation. I also became much more mindful of how I treat my neck and started to slowly work on the knots in my shoulders at home. In terms of being mindful about how I treat my neck, I avoid staring down at my iPhone and always make sure that my monitor is at eye level.
After a few months of the above, my pain pretty much disappeared. That was two years ago. Occasionally I’ll experience pain, but only after I’ve spent a number of hours working with poor ergonomics, or in some other manner that neglects the muscles in my neck or shoulders. If my neck or shoulders do feel extra tight after a work session, then I am sure to stretch and use a trigger point massage tool to work the knots out.
Work Smart, Stay Healthy, Avoid RSI
It’s hard to believe that I started running into RSI issues eight years ago. It’s even harder to believe that at one point the pain was so bad that I nearly left web development altogether. Thankfully, after a lot of time, money, pain, and experimentation, I am at a point in which I feel my RSI is under control and I no longer dread touching a computer. Below is a list of things that I wish I knew eight years ago at the start of my journey with RSI:
- Listen to your body. The longer that you ignore pain, the longer it will take to fix.
- Ergonomics are extremely important. The fact that school did not teach us proper computer ergonomics is still baffling to me.
- Take regular breaks! Also, give your body ample time away from technology. These days I do my best to avoid touching the laptop on the weekend, mostly so I know my body has time to recover. This time away is great for the mind, too.
- Stress can also impact RSI. When you’re stressed, blood pressure is elevated and your muscles receive less oxygen. This lack of oxygen allows muscles to become irritated much faster, and leads to the build up of knots.
- If you have long arms like me, then get yourself a split keyboard so that your arms don’t turn inwards while typing. Think about the extra muscle tension that curving your arms inward can cause. I have this one for traveling and this one for my office.
- Avoid using a trackpad for the same reasons that I just listed above. Trackpads cause unnecessary stress due to the inward motion of the arms.
- Learn to use your mouse with both hands. When my right arm or shoulder is feeling tired from excessive mousing, I’ll switch over to my left hand for a day or two. It was awkward at first, but I got used to this pretty quickly.
- Stay hydrated! Think of water as oil for your muscles. I definitely notice a difference in my muscles when I work without proper hydration
- An adjustable standing desk was probably the best purchase I ever made for managing my RSI, along with a monitor stand.
- Stop staring down at your smartphone! Hold that phone up, or just avoid using it.
- Invest in a good trigger point massage tool. Mine is very similar to this one.
If you’re a web developer with RSI, then hang in there. The healing process may take days, months, or even years (such as in my case), but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks for reading, and please remember to listen to your body when you’re working!