Simple tips to help prevent carpal tunnel and other repetitive strain injuries at the office
Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSIs) like carpal tunnel can be painful and cause severe problems. Learn how a few changes might help prevent them.
What is RSI?
Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is an umbrella term for localized pain and swelling, usually around a joint, associated with an ongoing, repetitive physical action. Both in the workplace and in everyday life, excessive stress on joints and tendons can at first cause pain and irritation, but can lead to more severe problems.
You've probably heard of RSIs before. Some common examples include carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow, but there are many different varieties and each RSI is typically associated with a specific action. Think of it this way: Where there's a joint, there's a possible RSI. "Texting Thumb," an inflammation of the thumb linked to excessive typing on mobile devices, is a high-tech example of the same kind of injury along with "Text Neck" and "Cell Phone Elbow."
In the office, the simple ergonomics of how you go about your work can play a major role in whether or not you develop an RSI from typing, clicking or talking. Preventing one can be as straightforward as changing your posture in your chair. Long days seated in front of a keyboard with a hand on a mouse can easily lead to an injury and it's important to do what you can to lower the risks. This also has a side benefit of reducing workplace stress as well.
Preventing RSI: Ergonomics
A few small adjustments to the way you sit and work can make all the difference.
- Limit twisting in your chair and sitting in awkward or unnatural body positions. Place whatever you use and reach for regularly — whether it's your computer, phone, stapler or coffee mug — nearby and within easy reach.
- Adjust the height and armrests of your chair and the position of your keyboard so you're in a "neutral alignment". This refers to a position in which your shoulders are relaxed and your arms fall naturally to your armrest when you're typing or using your mouse. Your elbows should be at about 90-degree angles.
- Type with your wrists at a downward angle. Older keyboards can be raised in the back, creating a downward-sloping triangle that forces your wrists up. Over time, typing at this angle could promote an RSI.
- Don't type with your wrists twisted to the left or the right. Instead, approach the keyboard from straight-on, with your pinkies able to comfortably cover the keys at the outer edges.
- Make sure your monitor is positioned directly in front of your head and at a comfortable height — preferably at or just slightly below eye level, and about arm’s distance from you.
- Adjust the height of your chair so your feet are firmly resting on the floor and your weight is evenly distributed over the full seat surface. If you have a chair or a desk that makes this difficult, find a flat or rectangular foot rest.
- Don't keep your wallet or any other bulky items in your back pocket when you work at your desk. Creating a slight tilt in your hips will place undue stress on your lower back, possibly leading to problems such as piriformis syndrome and nerve issues like sciatica.
- Don’t cross your legs while working at your desk. If possible, utilize a sit stand desk and strive to spend 20 minutes or more standing while working on your computer.
- Avoid neck and shoulder strain by using a headset if your job requires a lot of phone use.
Break it up
Simple changes to your everyday ergonomics will go a long way in preventing RSIs in the workplace, but there's more you can do to help in the fight against RSIs.
- Take brief breaks.
- Stretch your hands and wrists.
- Stand and walk when you can.
- Get plenty of exercise away from work.
- Take frequent eye muscle breaks.
If you do think you might have an RSI — swelling, tingling or unexplained pain in your fingers, hands, wrists, elbows or back — make an appointment with the doctor right away.
RSIs develop over time, become much more severe if they go untreated, can potentially require long-term physical therapy and rehabilitation, and cost you more for health insurance. As is often the case, the best approach is all-out prevention.