And now for something completely debilitating: RSI

I was in middle school when I first encountered a precursor to the Internet: Lexis-Nexis. I was on a gifted-program field trip to a brokerage, where a terminal returned news and information on seemingly any topic. I’m sure it was limited compared to today’s Internet, and prohibitively expensive for the average person to access, but I saw for the first time in real life something that had until then existed for me only in the world of Star Trek. I was transfixed. It’s a feeling that hasn’t changed.

Soon after I began attending college it was apparent that I needed to purchase my own computer unless I wanted to continue making the 30- to 45-minute drive to campus every time I needed to do research or work on a paper. As a single mom at the time, my budget was as slim as my plate was full, so I struggled a bit with the decision.

After about a year of doing my computing on campus – often accompanied by my understandably barely-patient kids – I bought a used computer and could finally do much of my coursework from home. I’m not sure at what point after that I decided I needed Internet service since, at the time, the Internet didn’t have much credibility among college professors. But the Internet beckoned, and I didn’t wait long to dial in. Oh, yeah – I did say dial. With my 14.4 modem. Yikes.

What – I can make web sites?!?

Mom got the InternetTo pull the kinds of grades I aimed for, all focus and energy outside of essential job and parenting duties went into studying and assignments. When a quarter or semester was over, I stayed in that kind of overdrive mode and tackled things I knew I wouldn’t be able to do while school was in session. One of those things was figuring out how to put up a website in the space that came with my Internet service. At first, it confounded me. When I started figuring it out, I was hooked.

A cumulative breaking point

I didn’t even type before I enrolled in college. My daily routine involved a variety of tasks that worked most of my body fairly evenly, plus I regularly worked out at a gym. The further I got into college, the more rigorous the coursework and the less time I had to devote specifically toward exercise. I was walking quite a bit to get around campus, so that helped with general fitness until I graduated. At that point I began spending the bulk of my days sitting in front of a desk, keyboard and mouse. That was a decade and a half ago.

Fairly early into my career I began experiencing pain in my hands during particularly busy periods. The pain would subside when the insane work hours did, so I sucked it up to get the job done and counted on getting a reprieve rather than changing much of anything about my habits. My employer did try to help with some changes to my keyboard and mouse, but it wasn’t enough to fix everything – especially not when I worked long hours and didn’t take breaks.

It’s my nature to stay on a problem until I solve it. I really hate giving up on something – even temporarily. I deal with it better if I can get to a natural stopping point. But I was treating everything I did as if I was on a deadline that, if missed, would cause the world to implode. I didn’t listen to advice about taking breaks because I didn’t see how stopping for a few minutes would do anything more than break my concentration. Boy was I wrong.

I knew I really needed to get back in shape when I began waking up nearly every morning in pain. Joining a gym and going regularly helped, as did walking the dogs with my husband. But a few months into my membership I hurt myself. I thought I was in better shape than I actually was, but I’d neglected too much for too long. The initial injury to muscles in my forearm was just the tip of the iceberg.

Back, shoulder, head, neck, arm, elbow, wrist paint – it’s all connected

If you have had pain from too much time at a keyboard, you might think you have carpal tunnel syndrome. Heck, maybe you’ve even been diagnosed with it. I had too many other things going on to assume that was the extent of my problem, but I still read a book called “It’s Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome,” because several people with computer-related injuries recommended it. That book made me understand the extent of my repetitive strain injury (RSI) issues, as well as their interconnectedness.

Posture Theory DiagramI sat too much, and the abs got weak. When the abs got weak, I slouched. I also slouched because I’m tall. Slouching pulls the shoulders forward, which begins to compress the ulnar nerve. That little bugger runs from the neck/shoulder area down through the outer fingers, and wreak havoc at many points along the arm. The more time I spent slouched over a keyboard, the more contracted my chest muscles became, so those slouchy shoulders became the norm. Along with all of these other contortions, muscles all over my back and shoulders were going downhill, and my head and neck were getting into the act. When I finally went to see a licensed massage therapist, my neck was about three inches north of where it should have been.

If you’re young and/or physically fit, you might not understand how silly little things like holding your head in a weird spot can mess you up. But they do, if you do them for very long. And as a society we are wreaking havoc on our musculoskeletal structure with all of our devices and social networks and whatnot.

Next time you’re out and about, look around at how many people – of all ages – are bent over a smartphone, portable gaming device, or tablet. Unless we can devise a healthier way to use these devices, we have to self-police if we don’t want to self destruct.

What seems to help

ergomanMore than a year and a half after that initial injury at the gym, I can finally say I’ve made progress. I am growing my business again, but this time doing it carefully. There are things I do (or avoid) that help. If you’re in a similar situation – or don’t want to be – maybe my list will help:

  1. General exercise – Something like walking or running that benefits the whole body.
  2. Yoga – Please don’t hate me for including this. My personality is 180° in the opposite direction of yoga, but it is #2 on this list for a reason. Heck, if I was more yogic (is that a word?) I probably wouldn’t have gotten into this mess in the first place.
  3. Limit device usage – I still struggle with this because I can do things with my smartphone that cause more strain than if I waited until I got to my computer. There are also things I don’t need to do with it at all – like Facebook. I removed the app and use the Facebook Pages app to manage my business page without being tempted to watch the latest silly video making its way through my timeline.
  4. Change your workstation – Set up your chair, keyboard and computer so that every part of your body is in the optimal ergonomic position.
  5. Therapeutic massage – This is only fifth on the list because the first four items have the potential to undo progress made with massage. But it has been key to getting healthy. If you read the “Not Carpal Tunnel” book I mentioned above, you’ll understand more about how it helps, but in short it will help you regain flexibility more quickly than you could on your own. It also helps release knots or trigger points that, untreated, can send pain into multiple areas. I know a good massage therapist if you’re in the Douglasville area. If not, check the AMTA website for recommendations.
  6. Take breaks – This is something that, for me, required an intervention. I use the Time Out app for Mac to set up five-minute breaks every 50 minutes. My screen is covered so I can’t work. I use the time to get up, do some yoga stretches and drink water. I discovered that the world did not implode because I took five-minute breaks. Whaddaya know?

We weren’t made for this

It might seem weird coming from a self-professed geek, but we were not made to spend our lives sitting down in front of a screen. Research has shown that our brains work best when we move. About the best way we can use tech without “breaking” ourselves is to balance it with exercise, stretching and real life. If you’re like me, it takes hearing the same thing over and over, and maybe a life-altering injury, before you’ll start doing things differently.

Don’t be like me. Seriously.

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