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. "BlackBerry thumb," an inflammation of the thumb linked to excessive typing on a BlackBerry device, is a high-tech example of the same kind of injury.
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, talking, or even musing—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.
Preventing RSIs: 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 will 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.
- 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.
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, too. Taking brief breaks, stretching your hands and wrists, standing and walking when you can, and getting plenty of exercise away from work will all help in the fight against RSIs.
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, and can potentially require long-term physical therapy and rehabilitation. As is often the case, the best approach is all-out prevention.