Getting to grips with RSI (Part 1)

The summer holidays are just a memory, and we’re all back at work with our focus on the busy autumn and winter months ahead.

But did you know that if you use a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet such as an iPad, or even just a smartphone, you may be at risk of developing Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)?

Alas, RSI — sometimes also called Upper Limb Disorder — has become commonplace in the UK, affecting somewhere around one in 50 office workers, and forcing one in six of those to give up their jobs.

So it makes sense to recognise the symptoms of RSI and be ready to take prompt action if you start suffering any of them.

Of all the main RSI symptoms, the most common is a burning or aching sensation in the elbows, forearms, hands and sometimes the shoulders. Pain centred around the elbow often leads to a specific diagnosis of tennis or golfer’s elbow, but all these symptoms can cause you problems, such as…

  • A sensation of heaviness in your arm
  • Difficulty lifting objects — you may even struggle with a kettle
  • An unreliable or very weak grip
  • Difficulty turning your wrist — driving may become painful
  • Headaches — these are usually linked to shoulder pain.

Never ignore warning signs like these, and get an early diagnosis from your GP. Most will prescribe rest and anti-inflammatory drugs but while both will help relieve the discomfort, they won’t address the underlying cause.

There are, however, some simple steps you can take to mitigate the strain on the affected arm. You can, for example…

  • Avoid carrying heavy bags or lifting a full kettle of water
  • Reduce the weight of shoulder bags or switch them between shoulders
  • Stop your dog from pulling on the lead
  • Between spurts of typing on your computer, turn your hands to face one another and then rest the sides on your wrist rest
  • Get used to switching to the unaffected hand when you use your mouse or touchpad.

Your workstation is key to becoming pain free, and at The Wells Clinic start by analysing how yours is set up…

  • Your screen should be at eye level as this stops you looking up or down
  • Make sure your forearms are supported on your desk, as your muscles will quickly tire if they’re suspended over the keyboard for long periods
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor — use a foot rest to stop them dangling
  • Use your laptop on a desk or a table and follow the rules above — never actually use it on your lap!

Next, we’ll look at the best way you can help treat the symptoms yourself — by deactivating trigger points, the specific hyper-irritable spots in a band of muscle which cause what’s known as ‘referred pain’ somewhere else. Treating the point where you’re experiencing discomfort will not stop the process that’s causing the pain, but deactivating the trigger point will.

Bl 1 Triceps 1 trpHere’s an example, with the blue ‘x’s on the triceps muscle marking the trigger point knots and the shaded blue areas showing where the referred pain may actually be experienced.

As an example, the easiest way to deactivate key RSI trigger points is to use an ordinary tennis ball to apply compression, starting at the elbow and moving down to the wrist. Treat the inner forearm for tennis elbow (flexors) and outer forearm — the hairy part — for golfer’s elbow (extensors). Sit down to carry out the exercise, with your arm resting on your lap. Work on a 0-10 pain ratio and never exceed Level 7 once you’ve found a trigger point. Keep the ball in place for eight to 10 seconds — the pain should drop a few levels and the tension ease from the spot.

Your knuckles can also be used — apply just enough pressure for the skin to move as you go up and down the arm.

Bl 1 extensors and knucklesAs you do this — with a ball or your knuckles — you’ll tackle two sets of muscles. These are the hand and wrist flexors and extensors, and for even better results you can combine the treatment with a series of specific stretches.

We’ll look in more detail at specific treatments and stretches in forthcoming posts, but if you’d like to find out more right away why not download our guide, 3 Steps to Healthier Computing or contact us at The Wells Clinic?