Dealing with RSI properly

Over the last two weeks I have been having bad symptoms of RSI and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Specifically in the right hand more so than the left. This is almost surely from the mouse.

I am going to share what I have found out after doing some research on the topics as all programmers should treat the symptoms of RSI as serious. This is probably the one thing that could end your career as a programmer and the symptoms should not be ignored for any reason. I have an appointment next week to visit my doctor and start physical therapy.

Over the last year or so I have noticed waking up at night with numbness in my right hand and figured I was just sleeping on it wrong. This was the only warning sign I had up until two weeks ago. One night two weeks ago I awoke from an amazing amount of pain in my right hand. I ran some cold water over it for a couple of minutes to get it to stop hurting so much and went back to sleep. The next day I noticed that my index, thumb and middle finger on my right hand were tingling on and off. After some brief research I found that these were common symptoms of Carpal Tunnel. In addition to that I now have burning sensations in my knuckles/joints and stiffness in my forearm and wrist.

Now, Carpal Tunnel is only one affliction in a family of problems that is RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). Some of these include tendonitis, arthritis, carpal tunnel etc.. So before you jump the gun and assume that you have Carpal Tunnel, visit your doctor to get a sure answer. 

First and foremost, take a break. At my peak over the last 2 or 3 months I have been spending about 14-15 hours a day at the computer typing away and coding. The very first thing I did was take a 2 day break over the vacation and iced my hand all the time. This helped me a lot and brought down a lot of the swelling.

It seems the steps you take from here is where there are a lot of different options and opinions. For some links on information that I have gathered thus far take a gander at my RSI tag at Delicious. That’s just some of the information I’ve gathered with a little bit of research. The two oldest links are by Phil Haack and Jeff Atwood with great information on what options you have with dealing with it. Phil Haack deals with RSI while Jeff Atwood fortunately does not.

Some of the things I have done to help with my symptoms are simple things at the time being. The first thing I did was switch my mouse to my left hand. It felt very awkward at first but I am getting much better at finer control with the left hand. This helped a lot as I only had to use my right hand for typing. Next, I purchased a decent wrist brace from walmart to help stabilize my wrist which I haven’t used that much as I switched mousing hands.  I purchased some Ibuprofen to help the swelling in my right hand and to help with the inflammation. I also got a stress ball from work that I have been using constantly to help strengthen both hands. Icing the wrist/hand at the end of the day works wonders for me and definately helps for sleeping and such.

The most major change I made in the attempt to stop any further problems in both hands was switch to the dvorak layout. This has been tricky as it is very hard picking up a new keyboard layout. This is a very logical way to go however. Simply put, your hands do less traveling with the dvorak keyboard than the qwerty keyboard. I have been practicing an hour a day for the last 5 days and am getting pretty good. For any long periods of typing such as this blog post I switched back to qwerty as it would have taken me an hour to type out this entire blog post. For everything else though I have been using dvorak. I got a new flat apple keyboard from work and swapped all the keys as well as swapped all the keys on my macbook pro for the new layout. I think this is the first time I have gone back to qwerty in about 3 days. I’ve heard it takes about a month to pick up the new layout. So far so good.

In closing, if you have any symptoms at all in shoulders/back/hands etc…, take them very seriously. Do some research and then see a doctor. There is no penalty for being careful. If symptoms go unchecked, the damage can be permanent and irreversible. Don’t take anything I have said here as gospel or anyone else for that matter. Do your own research and seek a specialist. The industry we are in doesn’t have many show stoppers, but this is certainly one of them. 

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About Sean Chambers

I am a Senior software developer from Palm Coast, Florida. An advocate of Domain Driven Design, Behavior Driven Development, creator of FluentMigrator and community activist. I am married to my beautiful wife Erin and am the proud father of two wonderful children. I currently reside at ACI, a local insurance industry/mortgage software company that excels in creating solutions using Agile methodologies.
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  • http://joeydotnet.com/blog joeyDotNet

    I’m glad you posted about this. It’s been something I’ve ignored for far too long myself. For me it’s my left hand mainly, with the constant swelling on my wrist right under my thumb. But I think recently I’m starting to have some of the other symptoms of RSI as well. Like you, I’ve been coding day and night for a while now.

    I’ve always wanted to try the Dvorak layout but never had the nerve to try it. Funny enough the other day, I was helping one of our interns at his desk and he was using the Dvorak layout. So that got me interested in it again. I’ve already started practicing a little bit with it. From the exercises I’ve done so far, it’s pretty cool how many words you can actually type without leaving “home row”.

    Anyways, thanks again. I’m going to have to check out your stuff on delicious.

  • http://garoyeri.blogspot.com Garo Yeriazarian

    I use a software called Workrave, it’s open-source software that monitors the time you spend on the computer and makes you take micro-breaks and full breaks. It also has some exercises that it can randomize for you to do during the breaks. The URL is http://www.workrave.org. You can set it up to blank out the screen and lock the keyboard / mouse if you are prone to ignoring its prompts.

  • http://www.lostechies.com/blogs/sean_chambers/ Sean Chambers

    @Garo: That is a really handy program. I just installed it on my home machine and like all the features. Especially the excercises for rest breaks. Cool stuff!