In 2005, programmer Henrik Warne developed RSI — repetitive stress injury. Over the course of six months, the condition progressed so severely that he considered a career change. Fortunately, through a combination of actions, he managed to get rid of the pain and fully recover.
Image remixed from HuHu (Shutterstock).
Early in 2005, the muscles in my forearms started to hurt. In the beginning, it was only a slight irritation, but over the course of six months it gradually got worse until it was so bad I actually thought I would have to switch careers and stop programming altogether. I realised fairly quickly that I had RSI — Repetitive Stress Injury.
After about a month of pain, I went to see a doctor. He thought my joints were inflamed and gave me anti-inflammatory pills, which did not help. A little later, I went to see a specialist, and after some tests he concluded that there was nothing wrong with the nerves in my arm. However, he could not answer how I could get rid of the pain.
I also went to a number of physical therapists and tried many different exercises, such as weight training, acupuncture and heat treatment. Nothing helped. It was also pretty clear to me that my problem was something they had not previously encountered.
So I started doing my own research on the web and tried different things. I read the book It's Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome! RSI Theory & Therapy for Computer Professionals, by Jack Bellis and Suparna Damany, which I thought was pretty good.
I also experimented with many different kinds of mice and keyboards. I found that the Goldtouch split keyboard and a gel-filled wrist rest works well for me. The split (and angled) keyboard allows my hands to stay at a more natural angle when typing. The mouse I use is an Ullman Penclic Mouse. You hold it like a pen and move it like you move a normal mouse. Since I hold it like I hold a normal pen, I don't have to turn my hand like I have to when gripping a regular mouse, and this helps a lot.
I also did 10 sessions of rolfing (yes, that's rolfing, not golfing), which I feel also helped in relieving my muscle pains.
But the biggest part of the solution for me was starting to use a break program that forced me to take regular breaks from typing — before I would program for hours without breaks. At the time, I was using Linux, and it was not easy to find a program that worked for Linux. Eventually, I found a really great one called WorkPace. I set it up to force me to take micro pauses for 10 seconds every five minutes, and longer breaks (with exercises) every 45 minutes.
A few years ago, when changing jobs, I switched from Linux to Windows, but I kept using WorkPace. Recently (without changing jobs), I switched to using a Mac, and unfortunately WorkPace is not available for Macs. After some testing I switched to using RSI Guard instead, which is comparable to WorkPace.
I believe that the break program together with the ergonomic keyboard and mouse really saved me. Over a period of about six months, my problems gradually disappeared, and I can now work without problems.
In the hindsight, it feels pretty obvious that you should treat the cause and not the symptom (just like when fixing bugs). However, none of the doctors and physical therapists I saw realised this. Instead, they were all in one way or another treating the symptoms. This was six and a half years ago, so there may be more awareness today about RSI and computer-related injuries, but you never know.
So my advice is that if you feel any pain when typing, do something about it right away. Don't ignore it and hope that it will go away by itself, because it most probably won't. Most people have no problems, and therefore do not pay much attention to ergonomics (why should they — they have no problems). But I was programming for more than 10 years without problems, and then it started to happen. It's called Repetitive Stress Injury for good reason — it is the many repetitions of the same movement over many years that cause the problems.
In my case, the combination of a break program, an ergonomic keyboard and mouse made all the difference — without that, I would probably not be programming today.
How I Beat RSI [Henrik Warne's Blog]
Henrik Warne is a software developer in Stockholm, Sweden. He has been programming professionally for more than 20 years. Read his blog here.