There are certainly hazards to bear in mind when it comes to a computer desk job. Okay, so maybe those dangers aren't on the scale that an oil rig roughneck faces, or a lion tamer – but they're still there. Computer workstation hazards include the likes of eyestrain, a sedentary lifestyle and general lack of fitness therein, and of course repetitive strain injury (RSI). It's the latter we're examining here, and coping strategies to help avoid the spectre of RSI.
RSI is a blanket term that describes pain, aches or general discomfort experienced in muscles, nerves, or tendons in the human body; it's an umbrella term that covers a lot of specific conditions, for example carpal tunnel syndrome. As the name states, a repetitive strain injury is caused by repeatedly carrying out the same task over and over again, day in, day out.
In the case of computer workers, the main causes are typing and/or mouse usage, and of course the generally affected areas are the arm, wrist or hand (or indeed all of the above). You may feel pain or twinges in those areas, or itching/prickling sensations, or pulsing aches which come and go. The first sign of anything like this should be cause for concern for those who use a computer – as the sooner you can address matters by reforming your PC usage habits, the quicker you can stop RSI from worsening, and becoming harder to recover from. Of course, if you experience any RSI-related symptoms, the first thing you should do is consult a doctor.
Even if you don't have any indications of an RSI problem, it doesn't hurt to examine your working practices and take preventative measures to ensure that repetitive strain injury never becomes an issue for you.
Okay, so how do you begin to recover from, or avoid getting, RSI? First, the basics: Take regular breaks from the PC. There are all sorts of reasons why you might not have a break – you simply forget, or you're under a pressing deadline – but try to make sure you step away from the computer and go and do something else for five (or even ten) minutes every hour. Or at least do something different at your desk for five minutes, such as paperwork – anything other than computer work (going on Facebook for a few minutes doesn't count). If necessary, set a timer on your phone, PC or whatever to beep and remind you of hourly breaks. This is important not just to avoid RSI, but also eyestrain, and it's just good practice at work (a short period away from the machine may see you refreshed, and able to see a solution to a problem that you couldn't put your finger on when staring at the monitor screen and scratching your head).
When you're working at the computer, try to remain mindful to keep relaxed. When you're busy trying to work quickly, you might find you're unconsciously gripping the mouse quite hard – make a point of trying to notice things like this, and to consciously relax your grip on the mouse. Holding stress and tension in your hands (or elsewhere) will increase the likelihood of suffering from RSI.
The same goes for your posture, of course. Relax in your chair – don't lean forward peering at the monitor (but don't slouch back, either – relax in a natural posture with an upright back). Make sure you have a decent comfortable desk chair, as well, and that it's adjusted to be the right height for your keyboard and monitor. Your eyes should be level with the screen, or very close to level (looking up or down to any degree may cause neck strain), and your arms, in terms of their position when using the mouse and keyboard, should see your forearm and upper arm forming a roughly 90 degree angle (with your wrists straight). In other words, your arms shouldn't have to extend out to reach your mouse and keyboard, as obviously this will cause some strain. You should be sat close enough to the desk to be able to comfortably reach your input peripherals. As for your feet, they should touch the ground, with your knees at right angles.
Also make sure your mouse is placed reasonably close to the keyboard, and not miles away to the right (or left, if you're left-handed).
We find it a good idea to use a mouse mat with a wrist rest built into the front of the pad; we've got a gel one of these, and the gel cushion makes mousing very comfy indeed (we noticed a big difference when switching from our old, plain flat mouse mat). These aren't expensive, either – our new, good quality mouse mat ran to the princely sum of £10. It's well worth spending a little money when it comes to your health.
Or you can spend more, and buy yourself a new ergonomic keyboard and/or mouse. Microsoft makes the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop set (pictured above), which retails for around the £50 to £60 mark, and did pretty well in our review. Some folks, however, argue that basic ergonomic keyboards don't do a great deal, and they prefer a more drastic solution in the form of the Kinesis Advantage keyboard (see below) – which can be had for just under £240 from Amazon currently. It's expensive, certainly, and not easy to acclimatise to – but by all accounts, for some of those who have suffered badly at the hands of RSI (so to speak), it has been a life-saving solution.
Exercise can help, too – gentle stretching, or shaking out, of the wrists and arms, and gentle neck rotations, which you can even do for a minute here and there when sat at your desk (perhaps make them a part of some of your regular hourly breaks). If you're sat at your desk for long periods of time, don't forget to at least stand up for a short break from time to time (and preferably walk around for a minute, as previously mentioned, to get your circulation going a little).
Some RSI sufferers have also found that things like gentle weight lifting (starting with small dumbbells if you're not used to any kind of weights work) have helped them, as improved blood flow to the arms helps fight symptoms. Exercise in general would help in this respect, too; and better your overall health for that matter.
Note that if you are already suffering from RSI, don't embark on any sort of exercise program without consulting your doctor first.