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
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.

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