Repetitive Strain Injuries


Back around Feb­ru­ary 1996, I was hard at work for Mind­Spring, writ­ing a soft­ware man­u­al, cre­at­ing web pages, and work­ing on a knowl­edge­base. I was telecom­mut­ing because we’d run out of space at the office and that suit­ed me just fine. I would get into a hyper-con­cen­trat­ed space and work for 10 or 12 hours with no con­scious­ness of any time pass­ing. I was annoyed that my left hand kept going numb for some odd rea­son, but if I stopped typ­ing and moved around the feel­ing came back, so I did­n’t think much of it. 

I did­n’t think much of it until the day that I real­ized that the numb­ness was­n’t going away any­more. In fact, my left hand had been numb for a week, and some­times my right hand was going numb, too. I men­tioned it while I was at my fam­i­ly doc­tor’s office being treat­ed for some­thing else and he did take it seri­ous­ly. He sent me to a neu­rol­o­gist. The neu­rol­o­gist did some tests and informed me that I’d dam­aged the nerves in my left arm and that only about 10% of the nor­mal nerve impuls­es were get­ting through to my fingers! 

Well, that was alarm­ing. Next was the hand spe­cial­ist, Dr. McBride. The offi­cial diag­no­sis was “left ulnar com­pres­sion neu­ropa­thy.” What that means for the non-med­ical major­i­ty: the nerves that con­trol the hand have to run down behind the elbow before reach­ing the hand, bun­dled togeth­er like the phone cable before it splits off to the hous­es in your neigh­bor­hood. That bun­dle of nerves was being squeezed at the elbow, mak­ing the out­er half of my left hand stay con­stant­ly numb (pinky to mid­dle fin­ger) and the rest of it varies from numb to painful, but always fair­ly weak and clum­sy. The more com­mon name for this prob­lem is cubital tun­nel syndrome. 

Dr. McBride insist­ed that I stop typ­ing at all with my left hand. One-hand­ed typ­ing was a real nui­sance! He said I could have surgery right away or try “tra­di­tion­al ther­a­pies,” which meant a brace and rest and anti-inflam­ma­to­ry med­ica­tion. I chose not to have the surgery right away, hop­ing it would nev­er come to that. The dam­age to the right arm was­n’t too bad yet, so I sim­ply changed my work habits hop­ing to keep it fair­ly healthy. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the non-inva­sive pro­ce­dures did­n’t work, and in April 1996 Dr. McBride did a surgery he called a “release” to avoid fur­ther nerve dam­age. (There is no way to repair the exist­ing nerve dam­age.) The surgery involved cut­ting my arm open from about halfway between my shoul­der and elbow to just below my elbow and embed­ding that nerve bun­dle into the large mus­cle of my arm. 

Now I have a big ugly scar and per­ma­nent numb­ness in my left hand. My right hand still goes numb from time to time, and both arms and hands ache like the dick­ens for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son much of the time. I’m told the pain comes from a com­bi­na­tion of arthri­tis and fibromyal­gia and is fair­ly nor­mal for the site of any injury— mean­ing there’s real­ly noth­ing to be done about it. 

My doc­tor pre­scribed occu­pa­tion­al ther­a­py for a while, but I found the for­mal ther­a­py less help­ful than some­thing I did on my own. I picked up needle­work again after a hia­tus of sev­er­al years. That allowed me to regain a great deal of fine motor con­trol and some strength in the left hand.

In Feb­ru­ary 1997 I was final­ly released to return to work. I’m very care­ful about vary­ing my move­ments through my work­day, and I used voice con­trol soft­ware as much as pos­si­ble for a few years. I try to avoid typ­ing (real straight typ­ing, not peck­ing while speak­ing with a cus­tomer on the phone) more than 15 min­utes at a time, or the numb­ness increas­es. I’m learn­ing to deal with the numb­ness and weak­ness most of the time with­out any­one else being aware of them. I think forc­ing any­one to lis­ten to the way I play the piano now might be a vio­la­tion of the Gene­va con­ven­tions and I’m nev­er going to reach the 100 words-per-minute typ­ing speeds I once had, but I’m no slouch at the com­put­er keyboard. 

TechnoMom’s Prescription to Avoid RSIs
or
Hindsight is 20/20

  1. Don’t spend 14 hours at a time at the key­board. Ok, at least move around and stretch and change posi­tions, go get some more cof­fee, what­ev­er, ok? Switch hands with the point­ing device. If you nor­mal­ly mouse with your right hand, put the mouse on the left side for a while. (Feels weird, does­n’t it? You’ll adjust.)
  2. Get seri­ous about ergonom­ics. Your key­board, mon­i­tor, chair, and typ­ing sur­face all need to be adjust­ed prop­er­ly to fit you.
  3. Prac­tic­ing good ergonom­ics is good but not enough to avoid prob­lems if you abuse your body. There are far more enjoy­able ways to abuse your body so just intro­duce some vari­ety into your life.
  4. Do not lean on your elbows. Ever. This is much more impor­tant than keep­ing Mom from fuss­ing about your table man­ners. Appar­ent­ly lean­ing on your elbows is one of the worst things to do to the nerves in your arms.

The fol­low­ing resources offer much more information:

  • Typ­ing Injury FAQ
  • Break Timer is a mar­velous bit of soft­ware (for macOS, Win­dows or Lin­ux) that reminds you to stop and rest periodically.
  • Drag­on Speech Recog­ni­tion—yes, there are oth­er voice recog­ni­tion sys­tems out there, but this seems to be the best over­all, which is why I used it when I had access to it.

One thought on “Repetitive Strain Injuries

  1. I want to thank you for pub­lish­ing this. I’ve had the same prob­lem for years. It start­ed with con­stant typ­ing in my 40s. It became aggra­vat­ed by con­stant jew­el­ry mak­ing (pli­ers in both hands for hours on end) in my 40s and 50s. 

    I was told it was all carpal tun­nel syn­drome. The solu­tion? “Rest your hands and wrists more often.” Good advice, but obvi­ous­ly not based on a sound diag­no­sis. “Carpal tun­nel” seemed incom­plete some­how, because it did­n’t start in my fore­arm. The numb­ness and tin­glings start­ed in my shoul­ders and trav­eled down to my pinkies and ring fin­gers (left hand most often). 

    NOW, I have some­thing to show the doc­tors and say, “See?! THIS is what I’ve been try­ing to explain to you all these years!” 

    So, thank you. Even though this page is ages old, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top
%d bloggers like this: