I got RSI and what happened next wasn’t surprising at all

It was extremely painful and I got very sad

In the early months of 2013 I started to feel arm pain when I was typing on my laptop. I had felt it a few times briefly over the years. Normally I would take a few stretching breaks and continue on. Not this time.

My computer at the time was a Retina Macbook Pro. I used it on the couch at home and hooked up to an external monitor at work along with an external keyboard and mouse. I was a young designer in SF working at a startup so I thought it was a good idea to spend most of my time using computers and writing code.

The pain went from bad to worse. It didn’t show signs of slowing down. But I pushed on.

I told my boss casually in a 1 on 1 that my arms were hurting. I tried to mask the pain and tell him I would magically get better soon. “You should stop. I’ve had some battles with RSI, just rest. It can get really bad. It is not worth it.”

Even when your manager commands you to stop typing, it can be tough. If I am not typing, what value do I provide? How can I be helpful? If I am not adding value why would they keep me around?

I reduced my computer interaction but I kept trying to do work. The pain in my arms continued to get worse. What started out as some wrist pain while I worked, evolved into what felt like a sunburn down both of my arms. It hurt to pick up or use my phone. It hurt to touch a computer.

At this point I would describe myself as in a state of “very freaked out” My career was largely centered around designing through writing on a computer. My internal perceived value was tied to my ability to manipulate, produce, and delete code. Would I need to change careers? Could I use some dictation software to code? What am I going to do? What careers involve no computering? My head was filled with stressful questions.

I went to several doctors in search of an answer. None seemed very helpful. They all prescribed ‘rest’. Most gave me a list of computer mice and keyboards to try out. They gave me some medication for the pain.

When you are in constant pain, you will generally try anything in search of relief. So I tried the doctors’ suggestion. I didn’t touch a digital device for two months. My friends texted for me. Sometimes I would read digital news over other peoples shoulders. I figured an extended break was what I needed.

I iced my arms daily. I got massages. I smoked a lot of weed with high levels of CBD. I smoked a lot of weed with high levels of THC. After eight weeks of rest I tried typing again. The pain quickly flared up. Rest hadn’t help at all. I was frustrated. I wasn’t making any progress. But not knowing what else to do, I kept researching. I kept trying new things. Some worked. Most didn’t.

Pain Management & Getting Better

The following list of things started to turn things around. They did not fix me permanently.

Even when I wasn’t in pain, if I didn’t continually keep up these habits, I would have flareups that would be debilitating to my ability to work. I struggled seriously with RSI on and off for about 2.5 years. My biggest tips are: if you have pain, slow down. Reduce your workload. Take it seriously. There are a lot of ways you can contribute to better software that don’t require you to type with your hands.

Self Massage

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEHMbhuxfAU

I generally did the massage in this video once a day. It was great for both immediate and long-term pain relief. Doing it consistently, even when I wasn’t feeling a lot of pain, helped me keep the pain at bay.

Pushups & Pullups

~100 quality pushups per day 3 days a week. You don’t need to do 100 straight. It’s okay if it’s 5 at a time. It’s okay to fall short when you are starting out. Work up to it at your own pace. But working on upper body strength has always helped me. My worst flareups have been when I was working too much and not working out enough. I’m not talking heading to the gym and lifting tons of weights for hours on end. Generally 5–10 minutes of pushups spread out over the day will suffice. Often times I’d do 5–10 at my desk once an hour to take a quick break, stretch my arms, and build strength back up. I don’t always have access to a pull up bar, but doing a few pull ups and arm hangs has also had a big affect on keeping my arms pain free while working.

Stretching

Arm stretches are great. I generally took a break every 90 minutes or so to stretch my arms.

I generally mix and matched a few of these: http://www.rsipain.com/stretching-exercises.php

Wrist Sleep Support

I got bad advice at one point to wear wrist supports at work while I typed. They didn’t seem to help and I’ve later heard from some doctors they are generally bad in this situation because they help weaken muscles when you need to strengthen them.

Sleeping with wrist supports definitely reduced the amount of pain I was feeling when I had a bad flareup. Not something you should have to do permanently.

Ice

I am a believer in the power of ice. A few days a week I would fill up a tub with ice and water and soak my arms for about 15 minutes. Helps with inflammation.

As little trackpad and mousing as possible

Often times when I notice problems I know exactly what the problem is. The trackpad. It’s often when I’m not writing a lot of code and doing more work in GUIs where I generally default to using a trackpad / mouse a bunch. I’ve had to adopt a number of habits to reduce my need for using a trackpad or a mouse. When I do have to do some extended mousing I find a small wacom tablet is my best option.

Refactoring my brain

Both of these articles were a huge help:

Programmer’s Guide to Healing RSI

How I cured my RSI pain

I did read parts of both The Mindbody Prescription, and The Divided Mind (I didn’t finish either.) I started to recover immediately after reading all of these posts though.

All of these things helped. But they also took time to do and when I didn’t do them I was constantly susceptible to having a flareup, even if I was only working 8 hours a day.

Since the Retina Macbook Pro came out, I’ve worked at a company that supplied one for me. Last July I decided to leave my job and strike out on my own. When I left my job I was actively managing RSI pain. It was pretty bad, I was paying out of pocket to get massages a few times a week for pain relief. I was doing pushups and stretching often. I was able to work, but it was painful.

I mailed my work computer back and I bought a Macbook.

My RSI pain went away almost immediately. All of a sudden I could work as much as I want without being in an ounce of pain. ** Update: A number of people have asked why I think this is. My biggest assumption is that it’s a different form factor. The keyboard is different, the body is thinner. As I am personally a small dataset I don’t want to claim causality, but I can say I consistently struggled with RSI the entire time I had a Retina Macbook Pro. Switching to any other computer might have had the same effect as switching to a Macbook.**

I can’t tell you how life changing this has been. It’s been about a year now. I’m still 100% pain free and have been the whole time. I feel back to my normal self. It’s fun to use a computer again for the first time since late 2012.

I hope some of the above tips help you get back to a pain-free life as soon as possible.

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