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Repetitive Strain Injury: How I Beat It

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I first started getting pain in my mouse hand more than 15 years ago. At first I wrote it off as 'the pain of work'. I mean, we all get pain during the work day, right? Ask anyone who sits behind a computer screen all day and they'll tell you about their 'shoulder problem', 'neck ache', or that 'tingling in their right wrist'.

But it was working in a 'collaborative' workspace that really set things off for me. Four years of laptops and long hours turned me into a physical wreck. My pain travelled from my hand, up my arm, into my shoulder and neck and down my back. One night I went out for Chinese food with some friends and I couldn't get my fingers to work the chopsticks. I switched to a fork, but I couldn't get my fingers to hold that either.

Since those days, I've met with an impressive list of doctors and other practitioners, from back surgeons to orthopaedic surgeons, from physiotherapists to acupuncturists, from nutritionists to a neurolinguistic programmer. I've had every kind of test too and I've been diagnosed with many things. But mostly I have Type 2 repetitive strain injury. According to the NHS, this means nonspecific pain in the upper limbs.

Over the years, I have had some relief from some of my pain. Various kinds of treatments have helped, some via the NHS, but mostly via my wallet. I estimate that I've spent upwards of £25,000 in my search for pain relief and a permanent solution. But the pain always comes back.

The only way I can keep it under control is by changing my behavior. If I limit the time I use computers and other digital devices (at and outside of work), take regular breaks while using digital devices, have a mix of regular treatments (massage, osteo, physio, acupuncture), stretch and exercise, I can keep the pain at bay.

As soon as I let one of these balls drop for too long, my pain comes back, often with a vengeance. One recent bad patch left me unable to lift my arms above my head to wash my hair.

I've tried lots of fancy ergonomic equipment, and I do like some of it, especially my sit/stand desk. Good ergonomic set up is very important, but no specialist equipment will save your body from the wear and tear of prolonged, relentless digital device use.

What works best for me is treating computer (and other digital device) use as a physical activity. This means preparing for it like a marathon runner would a race with daily warm ups and stretching, and most importantly, giving my body a rest from the 'running'. Regular breaks away from ALL digital devices during the day are crucial. Equally important: remembering that evenings spent shopping online and texting friends is not rest.

It also helps to remember that your fingers do not operate independently of the rest of your body. What they do, the rest of your body feels. Indeed, the nerves, muscles, fascia, etc. in your fingers connects with that in your arm, your neck, your back, etc. In other words, every type and every tap has a knock on effect.

It's true, there are some people who will work on computers and other digital devices their entire lives and never experience any pain. But for a lot of us, the cumulative effect of the years (decades!) of typing, clicking, scrolling and tapping all day (and night) is beginning to show. And unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all quick fix for Type 2 repetitive strain injury.

Nowadays, I make a choice every time I press a key on my keyboard or tap on my phone. Do I really need to be sending a text that is three paragraphs long? Is it worth the pain it may lead to? It's been 23 years so far for digital devices and me. I'd like to make sure I can keep on scrolling for many years to come.

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