Career commentary fitness forearm extensor Lifestyle RSI

Understanding RSI

One of the particular frustrations with having an RSI condition is that, as devastating as its impact can be upon lives and careers, it can be easily dismissed as insignificant or “all in the head” by those who have had no insight into its nature. When even the medical community can be guilty of dismissiveness, it’s little wonder that others can be skeptical too.

It doesn’t help that RSI isn’t a terribly visible condition. Even so, when I was wearing 2 arm braces pretty much on a permanent basis, initially they attracted some comment along the lines of, “What have you done to your arm(s)?”. After some time, however, my colleagues became accustomed to seeing me wearing them and I simply became the guy with the arm braces. It also doesn’t help that an RSI such as mine can preclude the movements that caused it, ie working at a computer, but does not necessarily (and thankfully) mean that other activities can’t be undertaken, ie ones that do not employ the same worn-out muscles. When the activities that can still be engaged in happen to be recreational in nature, this only serves to feed suspicion that the RSI somehow isn’t genuine.

I am fortunate in that I can participate in an outdoor activity that involves the use of my arms, and that is kayaking. To the uninformed, that might seem like a contradiction. How is someone who gave up their career because of forearm pain able to paddle? Some brief consideration of the movements involved should answer that question. There is a substantial difference between clicking a computer mouse and a keyboard all day every day and lifting a paddle in and out of the water over a period of a few hours per week. Indeed, the latter could be deemed as a healthy movement involving mainly the upper arm muscle groups including biceps/triceps and shoulders, with minimal forearm motion, and only a light grip. Regardless, I do still have to be mindful of my paddling technique as, for example, incorrect paddle grip could lead to exacerbation of my RSI, especially in the right hand wrist. Indeed, I have invested in a “neutral bent shaft” paddle that is ergonomically designed to lessen the impact of paddle stroke upon the wrists. It is also exceptionally lightweight.

It is easy to form immediate judgements about others’ conditions, but I would encourage anyone who is suffering from an RSI, or who knows someone who is, to educate themselves on the subject thoroughly before jumping to conclusions concerning capabilities.

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Career commentary Ergonomics Lifestyle RSI

The many forms of RSI

Speedcubing - a potential cause for RSIIn this blog, I have focused substantially on RSIs associated with computer and mobile device usage, specifically wrist and arm injuries. Of course, there are many other types of injury that can result from occupational overuse, whether you are a programmer, a checkout assistant or a chainsaw operator. Injuries are not confined to work of course, but can also result from leisure pursuits such as piano playing, golf, tennis, running or even Rubik’s cubing! Examples of the types of conditions that can be caused by such activities are: tennis and golfer’s elbow, thoracic outlet syndrome, De Quervain syndrome, as well as the more classic carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome.

Repetitive activities, including computer use, can adversely affect more than just the wrist, hands and arms, but also the neck and shoulders. Some years ago, my wife developed a constant and debilitating shoulder problem on her right side. At the end of each day in the office, her shoulder would ache such that the muscles would feel as if they were exhausted. Being right-handed, the most obvious association was with her computer mouse, yet it was apparent that this type of large-muscle ache would most probably not be addressed by using a different, more ergonomic mouse. It wasn’t until she moved jobs and her new desk included a drop down keyboard and mouse tray that the shoulder injury disappeared. Simply lowering the mouse pad had solved the problem. Even today, should she momentarily use a laptop and external mouse on a table top, for example, the shoulder issue will recur.

In addition, the range of occupations potentially affected by RSIs is wide. On several occasions now, I have encountered checkout cashiers wearing tell-tale arm braces which I instantly recognise  as probably indicating an RSI. I have chatted to such individuals and, indeed, they inform me that the repetitive motion of swiping products in front of the barcode scanner has caused their injury. I have recently heard of a tree surgeon having to scale back workload due to pain in his arms from the constant overhead operation of a chainsaw.

Examples of occupations at high risk of RSIs include:

  • Journalists, programmers, software engineers – anyone using a computer to do their job
  • Construction workers
  • Checkout cashiers
  • Production assembly line workers
  • Machine operators
  • Postal sorting workers

Sometimes it is not necessarily repetitive motion that is at fault, but holding the same position for hours on end. For example, many neck problems develop after possibly years of bad posture and/or inadequate breaks whilst staring at a computer screen, or performing any occupation that involves looking downwards (eg a jeweller). Even sleeping is not without hazard, if you are in the habit of lying on your front with your head to one side for example.

Of course, the key words here include “repetitive”, “overuse” and “habit”. The same principles apply in addressing these conditions:

  • Awareness
  • Good ergonomics
  • Adaptive software or hardware (this can include anything from computer mice to chairs to running shoes!)
  • Adequate breaks
  • Improvement of posture
  • Therapeutic exercise such as yoga, pilates etc
  • Avoidance, if necessary

So, regardless of whether you are at work or play, upon experiencing the first twinges of pain, it is time to become aware of the cause and to address them accordingly. The choice is yours – you can make the necessary adjustments to your work or leisure habits now, or be forced to give them up entirely later.

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Career commentary RSI

The rise and fall of a promising career

I have touched on many of the practical dos and don’ts about RSI, but what about its associated stigma and how it has the potential to change your employer’s perception of you?

Usually RSI sneaks up on you and hits you when you are most under pressure and least able to cope with or, indeed, rest from its causes. Often it seems RSI hits conscientious hard workers. In my case, I went from being a top performer to a problem employee in the space of  less than 10 years. This steady decline was not something that I wished for, wanted or felt happy about, but there was very little option, later at least, to change course. I could make management happy by working harder and thus continue to hurt my arms and hands, and I knew that backing off work would mean less throughput, less visibility and fewer financial rewards. It’s a vicious cycle.

I can remember how it ultimately felt when I quit. In one respect, there was the relief of being free from the cause of pain but, on the other hand, there was the bitter feeling of how the injury had made me fall from being a top rated performer to simply a problem employee in the space of 10 years. In truth, the injury had led me from loving my job to becoming almost disillusioned with it when I realised that I just couldn’t perform my role any more due to the pain. It’s a nightmare journey with a lot of frustration along the way.

It was also a sad day to finally say goodbye to my engineering position, in which I was qualified and had spent the best part of 20 years doing, in a career that I really had enjoyed. And, of course, the future lay before me with a very large question mark over it. There were a lot of mixed emotions.

The one thing that still rankles me is how the transition from a star employee to a problem one can happen. An injured worker isn’t very useful to a company and there is a breakdown in relationship between employer and employee when you get injured, which I guess relates to the business ethos. It’s a fact of life that, if you are limited in learning new things because you are injured, then you are becoming less and less useful. The only contribution for a long term employee is knowledge of the job. This can be tapped into in an advisory role for a while, but once that knowledge is imparted or becomes dated, your usefulness rapidly diminishes and you become a problem that needs to be addressed. Should I have done more? Should my employer have done more?  There are many open ended questions that linger with me to this day, ones that I know will never have an answer.

If I could change one thing, I’d have taken the injury more seriously a lot earlier. I can’t over-stress this point to anyone reading this who has just developed an RSI. It is very important to break free from the underlying causes before you too end up going from star employee to company problem.

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Career commentary RSI

It’s the little movements that hurt with RSI

I came across an article on the Dorset Echo’s website that referenced an employee who had been sacked by her employer for an alleged attempt to defraud them over an RSI claim. As part of their legal challenge to her claim, her employer produced over 60 hours worth of surveillance footage of her outside her home, shopping and going to the gym, and relied on around five minutes of this in her disciplinary hearing to disprove that she had a computer induced RSI ailment.

Civil liberty infringements aside, this example shows how ignorant some employers are to RSI and how it manifests itself. RSI is pain induced by micro movements of a repetitive nature, which ‘flares up’ and produces painful symptoms when doing many small micro movements over long periods of time eg typing on a keyboard or clicking a mouse. In bad cases, it can cause pain and weakness, for example in wrists, which may affect other activities, or other repetitive everyday tasks. The condition does not, however, generally affect the muscles groups associated with doing many tasks requiring larger motion, including most motions involved in working out at the gym.

The irony is that with RSI, activity that is based on large non-repetitive motions and especially cardio based activity should be encouraged since movement of the larger muscular groups will enhance blood flow to injured areas and promote natural healing. It should not be criticised and brought up as evidence against an RSI claim. To do so just shows the complete ignorance of the individuals and organisations involved.

It is a travesty that the perception is that someone with an RSI condition should be effectively seen to be in a wheelchair and/or doing nothing before they look like they have RSI to an employer. If they were observed continually texting on their phone or playing video games all day that would be a different story! However, being criticised for living a normal macro movement life whilst trying to keep fit and healthy is an outrage.

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Career commentary Ergonomics faq Input Devices Lifestyle RSI Tips

New RSI Frequenty Asked Questions (FAQ) Page

rsi_faq_mdI am happy to announce the release of my latest update to this site, a Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) Frequently Ask Questions (FAQ) page along with answers! This is basically a download of information from my head as to my understanding of RSI, along with relevant links and information, and is without doubt the largest information release I’ve done on this site. Hopefully you will find this useful. Please feel free to comment and share.

Career commentary Ergonomics RSI

Too young to be taught about RSI?

There is a  revealing quote from Dan Odell (Microsoft‘s in-house ergonomist), in an article titled ‘Elementary Ergonomics’ from ‘T.H.E’ by Jennifer Grayson . He states that –

“There is a growing awareness of how much of an impact there is on students. A lot of the ergonomists I work with at different companies have been noticing that students are graduating from college and coming into the workforce already with chronic repetitive strain-injury problems. It seems at least from the anecdotal stuff that it’s important to start focusing more on the student population.”

This could unfortunately be the start of the RSI epidemic wave that I have long been expecting. The younger generation coming through universities and colleges of further education are the ones that have been exposed to ‘technology’ since they were born and have grown up accustomed to a hi-tech life full of computers, mobile phones, gaming systems and other ‘daily use’ gadgets in complete ignorance of the danger that they pose. They are the generation that have grown up with an ever expanding level of text messaging.

What this generation does not appreciate are the dangers associated with RSI type conditions and their implications for future employment (and earnings) prospects. I also wonder whether employers realise the risks of employing people with these conditions, especially into computer intensive jobs. It may not be too far in the future before employers start to check for these conditions during a pre hiring medical examination, although it may be hard to diagnose without honesty from the potential employee.

What is obvious to me is that ergonomic and RSI health awareness training currently aimed solely at employed adults has to be brought into schools, colleges and universities also to educate the future employees before they succumb to a debilitating RSI condition when they start their employed adult life.

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Career commentary Ergonomics Lifestyle RSI

Are you at risk of developing RSI?

questionmedBelow, I provide a list of criteria that I would associate with a worker who will have an elevated risk of contracting an RSI condition. If you associate with a few of these activities, then you too may be at high risk of developing a RSI condition –

  • Computer operator professional or otherwise
  • Deep in concentration about your work, intolerant of interruptions
  • You slouch at your desk, peering at the computer screen, unaware of your posture
  • Working on a key project with tight deadline
  • Stressing about achieving that deadline
  • Working in a competitive environment in uncertain times
  • Spending your work time at a computer for 5-10 hours a day
  • Taking minimal breaks, and most of these are spent checking email /surfing the web
  • Lunch is frequently a sandwich eaten at your desk whilst working
  • You are a heavy coffee drinker
  • You spend a cumulative 30 min/day sending text messages on your mobile phone
  • You go home after a 10 hour day and relax by ripping some CDs to mp3, updating your iPod, catching up on personal email and unwinding by playing a ‘shoot ’em up’ on your computer/games system for 2-3 hours
  • You spends 6-8 hours sleeping before starting the cycle again

Lets break down each point and try to inject some solutions –

Career RSI

RSI potential in these stressful economic times

In these stressful economic times, it can become commonplace to spend time worrying about whether we may be in danger of losing our jobs or not. As the economy downturns, some businesses will start to review expenditure and decide whether or not to downsize. This lingering threat can result in workers putting in extra hours in an effort to make themselves look less expendable.

Many of these jobs will involve working at a computer for many hours a day, often continuously. If employees are working longer, in stressful environment because of job security reasons, they will be exposing themselves to health risks on top of job security risks.

According to one article –

“The TUC said research among 2,600 union safety reps showed that almost two thirds reported that stress or overwork were a concern in their workplace.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Stress casts a gloomy shadow over far too many UK workplaces. And as the

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RSI – What to do? (Part 3 – RSI Dealing With A Long Term Condition)

The following article is a follow-on from RSI – What to do? (Part 1 – RSI Initial Symptoms) and RSI – What to do? (Part 2 – RSI Dealing With Progressive Symptoms) .

OK, so you are experiencing a long term RSI condition, ie it has gradually worsened for more than 2 years. You are in continual pain at work and find it difficult to do your job. You have perhaps gone through consultations with ergonomists, doctors, physiotherapists and just about anybody who’ll listen, but still you find no relief. You struggle to remember what it felt like not to associate pain with computer use. You may be wearing an arm brace (and probably have a large collection of them by now), and you probably have a sizeable collection of strange ergonomic mice at your computer that don’t seem to help. Your employer keeps expecting the same work output from you and you stress about how you can get through it. You get by by doing what you can, but generally come home each night from work and feel anxious about the situation and the searing pain down your arms. You wonder what you can do, and how you are supposed to live a normal life – you can’t remember what normal life was like before this injury!

So what are the options then? Well I remember a great bit of advice from my father

Career RSI

Lunch breaks are not for wimps!

I found this article on the BBC News Magazine web page which got me all fired up just by it’s title “Are lunch breaks really for wimps?“. The article points to research which paints a truly scary picture of current work practices. The following are some quotes –

“Only one in six workers takes a regular lunch break.”

“One consequence of the credit crunch is that breaks are getting even shorter as job insecurity increases.”

“Employees are struggling to keep on top of to-do lists and think the answer is to work harder, eating a sandwich at their desk as opposed to taking a full lunch break, and also not having sufficient breaks during the rest of the day.”

“The vast majority of people are having lunch at their desk while working. That’s the average person now. Very rarely do they get out of the office.”

“If senior management create a culture that lunch is for wimps, it’s counter productive. We all need breaks.”

The research quoted in this article, if valid, foretells a very bleak scenario for