How to Treat a Repetitive Strain Injury

Q: I work at a keyboard and my wrists get really sore. What can I do to prevent damaging my hands and wrists? I can’t quit my job.

A: Repetitive strain injury from computer work is a wide-spread problem in this age of electronic communication. You may touch keys up to 200,000 times a day — the equivalent of your fingers walking 10 miles. Holding your wrists, hands and back STRAIGHT while keyboard walking is crucial to ongoing comfort and prevention of strains and pains. When you work with straight wrists and fingers, the nerves, muscles and tendons involved in this complex maneuvering can stay relaxed and comfortable. A straight wrist is a level, flat wrist. This position keeps excess pressure off muscles, tendons and nerves in your wrists and hands. Make sure your keyboard is set up just slightly higher than elbow level to prevent the wrists from flexing, extending or twisting unnecessarily. The ideal position for the back includes sitting straight in your chair, muscles relaxed, with your body tilted slightly back. If you lean your body forward (flexing) or too far backwards (extending), or if you slouch, your wrists and hands adapt by becoming flexed or extended too. This means that the nerves, muscles, and tendons that support your wrists and hands become tense and strained. Sit up straight, facing the computer monitor straight on. The top of the screen should be about eye level. Hold your head at a slight downward tilt to avoid straining muscles in your neck and shoulders. Touch the keys lightly. Keep your feet flat and pointed toward the workstation. This may mean placing a flat prop under your feet. Adjust your chair height and seat back so that you can touch the keyboard with straight wrists and hands. A wrist rest (like a small rolled-up towel) can help support your wrists and keep them straight. A lower back pad or pillow may help you sit up straight. A copy stand should be the same height as the screen so you don’t have to strain your neck to read what you’re typing. A telephone headset will help to keep your head upright and your body straight. NEVER hold the telephone handset by pressing it against your ear with your shoulder. The mouse pad, if you use one, should allow the mouse to float friction-free over it, requiring little effort. At any moment during the day when convenient, stretch your fingers out widely away from the palms 5 to 10 times. Also, rotate your wrists gently first in one direction, then the other, and then shake your hands out by letting them dangle from the wrists. Shake your hands first up and down, then sideways. You can also prevent build-up of tension in the upper body by reaching your arms strongly overhead for 5 seconds, then lower and relax. Repeat 5 times. Next roll your shoulders in a wide circular motion, forward five times then back five times. Get up and walk around whenever possible, and shift your gaze to a far focus – such as out the window – at least one time during an hour of working close to the screen. If you can, program your computer to beep at you at least once hourly as a reminder to take a stretch and re-focusing break. One of my favorite “head” relaxing exercises is to mouth the vowel sounds with greatly exaggerated facial gestures. A – E – I – O – U. On the “U” scrunch up your whole face toward the tip of your nose. This can be especially entertaining performed in a group… When you’re at home, try to avoid repeating the same movements you use at work. Exercise aerobically by walking or swimming. Play ball. If these suggestions don’t help your wrist pain, please see your doctor for further evaluation and treatment.