My Experience with RSIs
First, a little history: I am currently a 25-year old programmer. I’ve been building websites for over a decade, typed many millions of words on various different keyboards, and frankly have never thought much about ergonomics. At least, not for my hands and arms.
I used to be very proud of this fact. When I was 17 I got my first professional job as a programmer, and I went to work in an office where many of the other programmers there had weird, ugly looking keyboards and mice. I had never seen anything like it before: triangular keyboards, and mice where the ball was on top, rather than on the bottom.
Well! Such gimmicks were not for me. I didn't understand it, and I didn't want to try it. I used the keyboard and mouse that my computer came with, and I did quite well with them, never so much as a hint of pain. I don’t even remember what chair I used, whatever they had kicking around the office I’m sure, and my desk was nothing special either.
Unfortunately a lot can happen in 8 years. My situation is drastically different now. I’ve gone from a hard working but clueless teenager to an older and wiser professional developer. I’ve gone through a number of companies in that time, eventually landing where I am now: working for myself.
I also, for the first time in over a decade of doing this, am starting to feel the effects of many years of long hours using a keyboard and a mouse. I have a considerable amount of wrist and hand pain now: pain that bothers me all day, and keeps me awake at night. Pain that prevents me from working with the singular focus that I used to be able to achieve. For the first time in over a decade, I’ve had to consider the long-term effects that my work has on my body.
I don't like it. I’m tired of the pain, and I’m ready to do something about it.
So I’ve been analyzing my setup lately, and deciding what to do about this. I’ve been struggling with this pain for a couple of years now. I’ve made a few adjustments to try to cope with it, but nothing that has made much of a difference.
This article now exists to document my fight with RSIs: here I am going to talk about what's wrong with me, what I’ve done to combat it, and how effective these methods have been for me. I am not a doctor and my experience will not be the same as yours, but I hope that my experience can help others treat (or even avoid) going through the pain that I have gone through. So let's jump into it!
A Brief History of my RSI
I’ve had wrist pain for over three years now. At first it started out as an uncomfortable sensation that only appeared after I spent a particularly long day at my desk: this was my warning sign.
Back in 2016 I traveled a lot, and took a three month sabbatical from programming. When I got back to the computer, I almost exclusively worked on a laptop: and if you know the first thing about ergonomics, you know that laptops are terrible for your body.
I think this was probably where things began. I was working in a lot of coffee shops on a laptop, and that’s when I started feeling wrist pain. I didn't really have a good ergonomic setup again until a year later, when I settled down again.
By 2017 I had taken a stable job again, lived in an apartment by myself, and had a sit/stand desk with a decent setup. My first mistake here was I never got a good office chair: I sat on a hard wooden kitchen chair, in the hopes that it would force me to stand more often than I would with a nice chair. It did the trick: I did stand quite a bit that year. But my wrist pain started bothering me more and more, and my back wasn't too happy about the situation either.
In hindsight, this should have bothered me more than it did: I’ve always been careful about my monitor setup, because I’ve had neck problems since I was 12. This year I had almost no neck problems, undoubtedly because my monitor was at a good level, and I never had to strain my neck to see anything on my screen. My back and forearms, on the other hand, had to strain quite a bit in the average day.
Started my own company, and bought my own home office setup. I finally did listen to my back and get an office chair: a Hermon Miller office chair. This definitely helped my back problems. As a new owner of a company, I tried to save a dime and bought it on Craig's List: this chair was definitely better than a kitchen chair, and my back felt much better after purchasing it. Unfortunately because I skimped on the price tag, it didn't have adjustable arms. Adjustable arms, I would soon discover, are pretty important. This chair helped my back, but my arm pain started to become a constant in my life, rather than an infrequent occurrence.
Another thing happened this year that I believe had an effect on my arms: I "upgraded" phones. I left my beloved iPhone 5s behind, and got a 6s instead. The 6s is significantly bigger than the 5s, and even for someone with big hands, it’s much harder to use single-handed (my favorite way to use a phone). I use my phone the most in the evenings, after I’ve been typing all day, and with this phone the pain gets worse and worse the more I use it. Not good.
This year is the perfect storm as far as my arms are concerned: up until recently I was using my chair without adjustable arms, I was using a phone too big for my hands, and another thing happened that caused me great joy but also contributes to my arm pain: my wife and I had our first baby, a baby girl named Emmalynn.
With all of these things combined, the pain has gotten pretty bad lately. As noted above, my forearms are the main culprits: they bother me all day long, and sometimes keep me awake at night. I also feel a similar pain in my biceps, but it isn't as acute as my forearms.
I suspect this is some form of tendonitis: most of the pain is deep in the meaty parts of my arms, which seems like tendonitis based on my WebMD P.H.D.
Time for a change!
Full disclaimer: many of my potential solutions below involve "buying" my way out of the problem. I’m trying to balance that with free solutions, things that anyone can do, and time will tell which methods are more effective. My hope is that by combining all of these things, I can banish my pain to the basement never to be seen again.
Here are my main lifestyle problems, as I understand it:
- My chair doesn't have adjustable arms, causing my arms to contort to support themselves.
- I have a tiny keyboard. My wrists are always twisted, because my keyboard it so small. Big hands tiny keyboard: not a good combination.
- Extensive mouse use is definitely part of the problem too: my pain is always worse in my mouse hand.
- My phone is too big, and I probably use it too much. The iPhone 6s (and almost all the phones they make these days) forces me to stretch much more than my hands should need to. This definitely exacerbates the pain.
- My wife and I also had a baby. I spend a lot of time holding and bouncing her, which requires a lot of forearm engagement, and this doesn't help either.
I went to a chiropractor a couple months back for my pain, and he confirmed that these are all issues. He said my forearms aren't getting any downtime anymore: they used to heal up in the evenings when I had downtime, but with baby and other responsibilities that downtime isn't happening anymore.
Here is what I am doing to (attempt to) combat these problems:
- I got a new chair, with adjustable arms. I have positioned the arms level with my desk, so my arms always have support.
- I got a new mouse, an expensive trackball mouse.
- I am also in the process of upgrading my keyboard.
Those are the expensive options: generally upgrading my work setup. As for free options, I am:
- Limiting my phone time (outside of work) to only an hour or less per day.
- Doing a couple of stretches shown to me by my chiropractor.
- Doing DIYJointPainRelief exercises.
- Learning to type in the Colemak keyboard layout.
- Optimizing my computer to do more work for me, and working on keyboard shortcuts so I can reach for my mouse less.
- Taking a break from typing every hour or two.
The elephant in the room
There is one other factor that I think has made a big difference in my pain levels: I’m not working out anymore.
I’m embarrassed to admit this. I’ve never been a gym kind of guy, but I’ve always been active. I’m a runner, and I’ve always enjoyed a reasonably regular exercise routine.
This year, between caring for a baby, managing finances, handling domestic chores, and running my own business, I haven’t had the time or energy. This is something I’m not actively working on fixing, but if none of the above works, exercise is the next step.
There are a lot of tactics outlined above that, I hope, will help me with my arm pain. I have outlined the current state of affairs as best I can, and I will continue updating this article and sharing my experience as I progress.
If any of this resonates with you and you want to share your own experience, reach out to me! Plenty of ways to contact me in the footer below.