Keep your home working RSI free
Remember when working from home used to be a bit of a luxury, not having to travel to the office or get dressed up?
Suddenly lockdown has made home working the new normal and many workers find themselves coping with conditions that are far from ideal. Few of us have the luxury of a dedicated home office and many of us are sharing our space with our families, with a laptop perched on the corner of a table or even balanced on the ironing board.
Working prolonged hours on a computer can bring on repetitive strain injury (RSI) symptoms, and difficult home working conditions can exacerbate these. But what exactly is RSI and how can we help ourselves avoid it when we’re stuck at home?
What is RSI?
RSI is an umbrella term to describe the symptoms caused by doing repetitive movements that can lead to chronic strain or injury. You can develop RSI in any part of your body, but it is most commonly associated with your hands, wrists, forearms, and elbows.
Typical symptoms include chronic pain, especially at night; sharp and shooting nerve pains; inflammation; burning pain; tingling; numbness; pins and needles; and a general loss of function, for example the inability to pick up a coffee cup or turn a door handle.
Medical doctors often do not like the term RSI because they prefer to narrow down the diagnosis to a more specific named condition. Depending on where symptoms are typically felt, common diagnoses include thoracic outlet syndrome, golfer’s and tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and tendonosis, De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, Dupuytren’s contracture, trigger finger and texter’s thumb.
Why is RSI hard to treat?
Whatever the label, RSI-type conditions are often hard to treat medically. The symptoms can vary from day to day. Sometimes they are task related, and sometimes they seem to disappear totally with a period of rest, only to return with a vengeance on return to work. Despite the logical medical approach, which is to treat where the symptoms are felt, often this has only limited success but with no apparent explanation why.
These issues can make more sense when looked at from a myofascial perspective. Any repetitive actions put strain on muscles, joints and the fascia that surrounds them. Repetition over prolonged periods causes the fascia to change in consistency from fluid to stuck. Stuck fascia restricts all other structures contained within it, including sensitive nerves, blood and lymph vessels.
Office workers typically use their hands and arms repetitively for computer work, while sitting with the rest of their body immobile for many hours. With even the best workstation setup, over time this can lead to poor upper body posture with rounded shoulders and a forward head position.
As the fascia sticks your body into this position, it compresses your arm nerves which run from your neck across your chest and through your armpit. So many of the RSI symptoms you feel in your hands and arms are actually coming from further up the chain. Sometimes the fascia can be so stuck that all it takes is to sit at your workstation for your symptoms to come on.
How to help yourself at home
Understanding what RSI is and how it can develop gives you power to prevent it. Here are some easy self-help actions you can take at home:
- Make sure you have the best possible setup. Rather than guess, try this online workstation assessment from posturepeople.co.uk for only 99p.
- You may not have a dedicated workstation, but you can get simple aids to help prevent poor posture by improving chair support, laptop screen height, and mouse and phone use.
- Take regular breaks. It’s easy to get sucked into projects and absorbing work, so set a timer if need be – or ask a family member to ‘interrupt’ you.
- Use your breaks to move your body. Go for a walk, even if it’s just round your home – or better still, here’s some chair-based exercises to get your fascia moving again.
- Stick to your regular work hours and don’t be tempted to keep working just because you’re stuck at home.
- Make use of your spare time to start some new movement practice – try yoga, pilates or tai chi, all of which are now available as online classes.
- If you already have any symptoms, arrange an online appointment with a good bodywork therapist to get advice on self-help exercises to do at home.
Above all, make use of your time at home to develop a new and more healthy work habit to help reduce or prevent RSI now and in the future.