There’s no going back from RSI: invest in your ergonomics now!

March 22, 2010

As someone who’s had some really painful RSI, I’ve found that the typical office worker’s desk arrangement makes me wince. Every day I see poor posture and desk arrangements that are destined to cause people pain.

RSI is not something that most sufferers ever fully recover from. Once it happens, that’s when people start taking their ergonomics seriously, but that’s usually too late. RSI is like a Pandora’s Box: once its there, you’re looking at a lifetime of somewhere between mild discomfort and daily pain, depending on your case.

My Story

One day in 2004, a colleague of mine, a developer decided to get angry at his keyboard (or perhaps Windows!) and hammered the delete key in a repetitive manner a few hundred times. The next day, he’d lost the use of his left hand. He has never really recovered; good job he’s no longer a developer!

This put our office under extreme pressure for months. We couldn’t easily buy in help, and I took up most of the slack. Years of poor posture/ergonomics, plus a few months of stressful, additional workload resulted in constant pain in my hands, arms, shoulders, and neck. Many days I couldn’t manage to work at all.

To this day the tension has never been fully alleviated, although I did learn a lot along the way about how to cope. I took up hot yoga, tried physiotherapy, received regular sports massage, and changed how I work. Fortunately, I’m not coding much any more.

Let’s take some day to day examples: some do’s, some don’ts!

Posture

Legs Crossed at Desk

Here’s someone with his legs crossed under the desk, a big no-no. Good posture requires that the weight of your body is evenly distributed.

Sitting up straight, close to the desk, with a slight tilt backwards is the ideal. Feet should be flat on the floor with legs at 90 degrees. This often requires chair and desk adjustment in tandem.

Position

Laptop Use

Here’s something we see often at The Werks, laptop jockeys looking down. This is no good for your back and neck, the top of the monitor should be level with your eyes.

Laptop Stand

Here’s a quick, cheap improvement: using a laptop stand to raise it up.

Keyboard And Mouse Too Far Away

Here’s an example of the keyboard and mouse being too far away. Eyes are at roughly the correct height, but there’s a stretch to reach the mouse and keyboard.

Elbows should be tucked in to the body, roughly level with the desk, and there should be minimal reaching to use the keyboard or mouse.

Equipment

If you think about it, the typical keyboard and mouse arrangement is extremely unnatural for our hands: the ideal position is more like wielding an axe, rather than laying your hands down flat.

Split Keyboard And Tablet

That’s why I use a split keyboard to soften the angle that my hands work at, and a pen tablet instead of a mouse. Split keyboards are expensive: a cheap alternative is the Microsoft ergonomic keyboard. Pen tablets can be had for around £50, but are harder work to adjust to.

Chairs are a very important, potentially expensive investment, but also a very personal thing. I find arms restrictive, but they are recommended. I’ve tried the big daddy of ergonomics (the Herman Miller Aeron chair) but I found that I felt too far back in the seat (although it is very comfy for most people). I’d recommend trying as many chairs as possible, and making sure the lower back is supported.

Software

One of the main problems we tend to suffer from is the sedentary nature of our desk work.

I use software that forces me to take a break every 40 minutes. Some have a really hard time adjusting to this, but in the long run I’ve found that my concentration improved with regular screen breaks. I think this helps you see the wood from the trees.

Incidentally: some of the best known, innovative design firms in the world (Ideo, Adaptive Path) try to spend as little time at the computer as possible – being constrained by the desk and screen is seen as inhibiting creativity.

For Windows or Linux try Workrave, for OSX try Anti-RSI.

Hope you’ve found this useful: I wish someone had gotten me to take it seriously before I was in a lot of pain. The costs are nothing if you consider the long term implications.

Special thanks to those who I’ve used as examples!

4 Comments


  • Jane says:

    In a similar vein, but with less pictures of people doing bad things, is my advice http://jane.dallaway.com/rsi-advice

  • Just un-crossed my legs… for the millionth time. Why do I keep crossing them!?!

    And I’ve raised my laptop up on a couple of box files.

    Feels better already.

    Cheers Ben!


  • Rob says:

    Speaking as the big bloke hunched over his keyboard, I know all this but have always felt immune – and I’ve been using PCs since 1982.

    One thing is worth adding though – notebook trackpads are the devil’s spawn. In just over a year I’ve developed pains in my right elbow that I’m convinced have come from using a Macbook for pointing, clicking, dragging and scrolling. So I’ve bought a mouse and – I think – can already tell the difference.

    Rob


  • Ian says:

    Hi Ben
    This is very useful for people who work long hours at a keyboard. Until we get Werkshop out of emergency mode my hours and consultancy work are sporadic and irregular so I don’t tend to sit anywhere for very long.
    If you see me typing you will see that I could never get RSI as I type down onto the keys and all the movement is on my elbows BUT I will try to raise my screen so I keep my head up.
    You could take a photo of me typing if everyone wants a laugh at my expense!

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