RSI, Mind over Matter?

mind over matterDuring the course of my injury, I have frequently encountered opinions and references to RSI injuries being “all in the mind” (a reference to the sufferer somehow psychologically inducing RSI pain rather than there being an actual physical cause).

Addressing this idea seems to have worked for some people. Other people see the condition as solely a physical disability and treat it as such. I however prefer to believe that it is more than likely a merging of the two in a pain cycle that contributes to the worsening of such injuries.

The following is a list some of the physical and psychological factors with RSI injuries –

Physical (matter)

  • sore/deforming/cramping muscle tissue from bad ergonomic practices, muscles in continual tension.
  • tendon over-stretching, friction in tendon sheaths
  • numbness, tingling and pain from pinched nerves in shoulders elbow, wrist, hands
  • low circulation and burnout from non fluidly moved muscles in arms and hands
  • lack of circulation in arms and hands

Psychological (mind)

  • tension about condition, pain, symptoms
  • stress about impact of condition on life and wellbeing (physical, psychological, social, career prospects, financial etc)
  • anxiety over work related stresses eg workload, project deadlines
  • depression about facing life with a disability
  • addiction to use of computer devices outside of work
  • belief that there is an ‘instant fix’ for RSI and being frustrated that there isn’t
  • tensions, stresses and anxiety about your own personal life outside of work/computers
  • stress at general skepticism encountered towards RSI type conditions and lack of ‘magic bullet’ cure

I personally find that any suggestion that RSI could be 100% mind related to be quite ridiculous. In my experience I’d have to say that it is a mixture of both physical and psychological factors that cause RSI symptoms. The percentage impact of psychological (mind) over physical (matter) can vary from individual to individual, but as an estimate I’d say the figure for me is about 30%(mind)/70%(matter). This ratio could of course change for different people, since we all have different backgrounds and circumstances.

The impact of the psychological (mind) issues however should not be overlooked as they play a key part in a cycle of positive feedback that increases pain-like symptoms. The tensing of your body muscles when you see a computer (in fear and foreknowledge that this computer makes you feel pain) can lead to stressed muscles, tendons and ergonomic problems before you even begin to use the computer. These tensions, coupled with the bad ergonomics that led you to have the symptoms in the first place, can lead to the continuous self feeding RSI pain cycle which makes the symptoms you suffer even worse. It can also be very hard to break free from this continual cycle.

Sometimes when I worked intensively at a computer and was very focused on the job at hand, I would not notice the symptoms quite as much as usual (my mind was obviously more focused on work than the condition I had). I would, however, ultimately pay for this later when, after leaving work for the day, the muscles would all hurt (physically), and I’d tense up because of the pain (psychologically) which would lead to a worsening of the symptoms. Breaking this cycle is key to being able to relax (psychologically) and rest the injured tendons and muscles (physically). Quite often I’d be able to break the pain cycle through my own physiotherapy, by using contrast baths to relax the muscles (physical), decrease the pain (physical) and make me more relaxed about my condition (psychological). A good night’s restful sleep is another way to help break the cycle too.

Breaking the psychological/physical RSI pain cycle may be one of the hardest things in life that you will have to face especially if you are immersed in a full time occupation that involves intensive computer use with deadlines, workload expectations and pressures to perform at your peak capability.

Whilst RSI cannot in my opinion be attributed to being ‘just in the mind’, there are psychological factors that can contribute to the overall RSI pain cycle. It is important to recognise that these factors need to be addressed too, and should be targeted in any attempt to address your RSI condition as a whole.

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5 comments

  1. jon says:

    Would be nice to hear some more details on coping startegies/techniques.

  2. Kina says:

    Hi- I suffer from rsi and lately is becoming quite annying to the term I can’t use my right arm properly no more. I’m home from work and the feelings of guilt and uselessness certainly do not help my condition. My therapist pushes the fact that until I can reach a relaxation psychologically, I will not reach it physically.
    The problem is that not many people around me really understand the pain I have nor the fact that the impossibility to do some normal activity can be quite frustrating.. this aggravates the condition.
    I am also very worried about needing to change carrer after many years of employment and I seem to not be able to find any website showing the best options for people who suffer from this condition, maybe you can help us here….
    Finally, I thank you for this post: it should make everybody aware of the RSI condition (I’ll forward this to some peeps!) –
    Good luck and health. Looking forward to have no more pain 🙂

  3. Chris says:

    I suffered from RSI (Tennis and Golfer’s elbow) for 14 months, changing jobs from programmer to architect to avoid too much keyboard and mouse work, did months of massage, NSAIDs, physio, started using dragon dictation and quit my MMO. At this point, my pain subsided slightly, but prevented me from returning to coding, which is what I enjoy.

    After reading Nate’s story at http://www.conquerrsi.com/, I tried a little amateur meditation and bought Sarno’s book. I personally think his Freudian theories are a crock, but the message of the pain being mostly in my head struck a chord.

    I’m RSI free now, and back to coding and playing WoW. Early on, the pain returned when my confidence in the theory wavered, but I lost 95% of the pain and returned to my regular computer use within about 6 weeks. The other five percent took another month or so.

    You’ve been suffering a lot longer than me, so I’m guessing this may not work for you. Just wanted to let you know that the whole mind-body thing is more than a few random cases and a doctor trying to sell a few books. At least, there’s one more person out there that can vouch for it.

  4. Kina says:

    Hi, I come back as I have some news over my RSI and pain. It has been declared chronic, meaning it could always come back. I have also been enrolled by the hospital in a physical rehab, which mostly consisted in “training your brain to pain”.. a bit what Chris is mentioning. Doctors explained me that our brain works as an alarm when pain comes. When someone suffered from a lot of pain the brain is immediately triggering the alarm and the pain – even the little one – is received as a BIG one by the brain, which will trigger all the alarm bells. This will make the sick person more “sensitive” to his own pain. To overcome this, they are training me weekly on daily activities, or ex. use of computer: we decided that in 10 weeks I’ll be able to work 1.5 hours on PC non-stop… you begin to build this time up even when yuou have a little pain. You train your body to work through the MINIMUM pain only to build up the strength to reach your goal. In this way the brain let all the alarms loose and you’ll be able to do much more around the pain. I have been sick since last year and before… now finally understood how to deal with it. I wish you all my sincere good luck hoping it will go better for you as well.
    I refused to accept the idea I was blocking my own-self.. but once accepted, it is really much better 🙂 ciao ciao – strength!

  5. Kina says:

    p.s. a little addendum: once I accepted the pain as part of me, the people around me had to accept it too ….

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