Back in 2014, I started to experience repetitive stress injury (RSI) pain in my forearms and wrists. At the time, I’d moved from a hybrid “talk to people / type at a computer” type job to a job that was pretty much full-time “type at a computer.” The pain started to become pretty debilitating, and I even developed a ganglion cyst in one of my wrists. Things weren’t getting any better on their own so it was time to do something.
I’m definitely more of a “try to fix it yourself before resorting to expensive medical treatments” kind of guy, so I started doing some research, making some changes, and trying a few different things. Now, almost 10 years later, I’m completely pain-free so long as I stick to some good habits and use good tools. In the hopes that my learning will help others, here’s what helped me overcome RSI as a software developer.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor, so please consult with yours before making any changes. The following is more a summary of my journey that you can hopefully use as a jumping off point for your own recovery and should not be taken as medical advice – use at your own risk.
TL;DR – For me, fixing RSI has involved:
- Reducing the repetition that contributes to injury,
- Cutting down on the stress that I put on my body, and
- Hardening and strengthening my body against injury.
Reduce Injury-Inducing Repetition By…
Using a Break Timer
Break timers are awesome. At a high-level, they are software that you install on your computer that prompts (bugs?) you to take short breaks at specified intervals.
There are a lot of great free options out there. Some of my favorites include:
- BreakTimer (Windows, macOS, Linux)
- Workrave (Windows, Linux)
- RSI Break (KDE Linux)
I have a break timer set to take a 20-30 second break every 20 minutes. During this break, I try to:
- Relax my entire body, especially any parts prone to RSI.
- Focus on something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This is really important to do for eye health, especially when you stare at a screen all day.
Cut Down on the Stress that You Put on Your Body By…
Using an Ergonomic Mouse
The unnatural way that standard computer mice require you to hold your forearm and wrist turned out to be a big culprit when it came to my RSI.
I now use this ergonomic mouse and it makes a HUGE difference: J-Tech Ergonomic Vertical USB Mouse.
Switching to a Mechanical Keyboard with Silent Switches
Most standard keyboards cause your fingertips to impact the keyboard base with each keystroke. Over time, this stress can cause injury to the forearms and wrists. This was definitely happening to me, so to combat it I switched to using a mechanical keyboard with silent switches.
The “silent switches” are super important here. If you don’t use silent switches, your fingertips will still be impacting, whereas with silent keys your fingers don’t actually need to impact for the keyboard to register a key press.
I’ve used two different mechanical keyboard brands over the years, both of which I’ve loved.
- Ducky: These affordable mechanical keyboards give you great bang for your buck.
- Corsair: Their K70 Mechanical keyboard is awesome.
Whichever keyboard you choose, just be sure to choose silent switches. Cherry MX Red switches are my preferred keyboard switch for RSI prevention and remediation, and they can often be selected when you’re purchasing a keyboard. Here’s an example of how you’d select Cherry MX Red switches on MechanicalKeyboards.com:
Working from Various Positions Throughout the Day
A lot of the damage office workers do to their bodies comes from being stationary, whether that’s standing or sitting. To help combat this, alternate between sitting, standing, and some type of movement throughout the day. Some movement types I enjoy are:
- Slow walking (1-2 MPH max) on a treadmill during meetings.
- Using an at-desk cardio device like a Bionic Body Compact Elliptical Trainer or under-desk treadmill.
Harden and Strengthen Your Body Against Injury Through…
Yoga is so good for general mobility – move it or lose it! It’s also a lot easier to get started doing yoga than you might think: No special equipment is required for yoga and you can learn the basics from a myriad of great teachers on YouTube and similar places.
My personal favorite online yoga teacher Adriene Mishler. Her YouTube channel is “Yoga With Adriene.” Adriene has a wonderful conversational style, is great at explaining yoga concepts, and making learning yoga fun. She has a ton of great free programs here, and she has a free beginner-friendly program available here.
The above changes will take you far when it comes to preventing further injury from repetitive stress; however, if you want to not only heal but also recover and possibly even become stronger in order to prevent future injury, then you need to strengthen your muscles.
Don’t worry – you don’t need tons of special equipment and hours and hours of time to accomplish this. Here’s a general “get incrementally stronger” guide that you can adapt to your own strength building needs:
Step 0: Always get advice. Watch or read about good form and proper technique. Doing exercises improperly diminishes their effectiveness and could even result in injury. Whatever you do, start small and work to build a lifestyle that incorporates health.
- Start strength training by lifting weights. Five to ten pounds is great to begin with, eventually try to build to at least 20. Lifting free weights will build strength in not only your arms but also in your fingers and wrists, great for RSI recovery.
- Add some planks. Planking builds full-body strength and is a great gateway exercise for other exercises.
- Build to push ups. If you can’t do normal push ups, start from your knees and go from there. Push ups are great since they don’t require any equipment and will strengthen not only your upper body but also your wrists, super important for RSI recovery. Start small and build up to doing around 10-15 push ups with good form.
- Graduate to pull ups. If you can do them with good form and in a controlled manner, pull ups are one of the best full-body exercises around. They also take strength building in the hands and wrists to the next level and will really help turn RSI around.
And there you have it. It does take some hard work dedication to recover from RSI, but it is possible and definitely worth it to live free from RSI pain.
Also, if you’re not currently dealing with RSI pain, it’s not a bad idea to keep it that way by proactively following some of the advice above, even if it’s just strength training. Whenever possible, it’s best to try to prevent issues vs. having to battle your way back from an injury.
Stay RSI-free friends – here’s to your health!