Twelve Myths About RSI
What you don't know can hurt you
By Deborah Quilter
First published December 9, 1997
When it comes to
computer injuries, ignorance is agony. Many people get hurt simply because
they hadn't heard of repetitive strain injury (RSI) until they were diagnosed
in the doctor's office. Others get into trouble because they don't know
how to set up their workstations properly, neglect to take breaks, or
habitually slouch. Still others deny their injuries and continue aggravating
activities despite experiencing chronic soreness, dropping things constantly,
or finding it difficult to perform simple activities such as writing,
opening doors, or shaking hands when they should be seeking help.
A little education
can help you protect your hands. Here are some common misconceptions people
have about RSI.
- I don't type
much, so I won't get injured.
People who use
computers for as little as two hours a day can become severely injured.
A lot of typing is only one risk factor for RSI; others include holding
still for long periods, awkward positioning, poorly designed input
devices, ill-fitting workstations, and poor posture. Using a mouse
causes overuse of one hand and can be far more injurious than the
- RSI is the
same as carpal tunnel syndrome.
injury and carpal tunnel syndrome are not synonymous. RSI is an umbrella
term for many cumulative trauma disorders, such as De Quervain's disease,
tendinitis, epicondylitis, cubital tunnel syndrome, and carpal tunnel
syndrome. This distinction is important. People may not know about
the other common forms of RSI, and if they don't have symptoms of
carpal tunnel syndrome which they might read about in the news, like
wrist pain, they may put off seeking treatment because they don't
realize anything serious is wrong.
- RSI is all
in your head.
can certainly be triggered by stress, RSI is not an imaginary malady.
If it were, physical ailments would disappear after people worked
through psychological stumbling blocks with a therapist. If your doctor
suggests your symptoms are psychosomatic, you should seek a second
you've seen a doctor about your bodily ailments, you may wish to enter
psychotherapy to help you deal with frightening anxieties brought
on by the all-too-real financial, physical, and job-related RSI problems.
- My injuries
will go away when I stop using a computer.
If you receive
proper treatment (not just rest) at the first hint of injury, your
chances of recovery are better. But many people ignore early warning
signs, such as fatigue or weakness. If you wait until you experience
severe, incessant pain before seeking treatment, permanent damage
may be done and you may develop a chronic disability. At this stage,
it may take many months of arduous rehabilitation simply to reach
a pain-free state at rest.
- If I start
having problems using a computer, I'll stop so I can save my hands for
playing guitar (or whatever else you enjoy doing).
hands now, because once they're injured, any activity that uses them
can exacerbate the problem.
- Why should
I see a doctor? This goes away by itself.
In the earliest
stages of injury, RSI frequently manifests itself with episodic bouts
of soreness or other symptoms that come and go. In later stages, symptoms
are present all the time. Chronic RSI does not get better by itself.
It can get worse if left untreated.
- I'll just
get some splints (or magnets, wrist rests, vitamin supplements) and
that will take care of it.
self-treat RSI can have tragic results when the injury worsens. For
example, splinting is a medical procedure that can lead to atrophy
and even more extensive injury, and should be done only under the
supervision of a physician. If you're in so much discomfort or have
so little strength that you can't use a computer without wrist support,
you probably shouldn't be working. You should take an active role
in your healing, but let a professional guide your progress.
- I'll just
take some time off and things will go back to normal when I come back
many people that although they felt fine when they weren't using their
computers, their symptoms return within moments of going back to the
mouse or keyboard. Once injured, the tissue becomes fragile and prone
- I'll get one
of those new ergonomic keyboards, or a voice-recognition system so I
won't need my hands.
won't make a disability go away, nor will it necessarily prevent injury.
New gadgets don't address risk factors such as speed, repetition,
poor posture, awkward positioning, weak muscles, and sedentary behavior.
More often, new tools could simply shift the focal point of injury
from one part of the body to another (for instance, from hands to
There are no
substitutes for rest, good posture, regular breaks, self-pacing, maintaining
a reasonable workload, and heeding your body's warning signals that
you've done enough for today. Savvy athletes understand that overtraining
can lead to overuse injuries, and that proper conditioning, technique,
pacing, and alignment can help prevent problems. Computer users must
embrace the same principles to stay out of trouble.
- My fingers
tingle, but my doctor and physical therapist say the problem is in my
neck. They must not know what they're doing.
and therapist sound smart. Such symptoms can result from compression
of the brachial plexus, an important network of nerves that leads
to the hand. Tight neck muscles can cause this pressure.
- My co-worker
claims he's injured, but he and I do the same job and have identical
workstations, so he must be faking it.
The roots of
RSI are for more complex than jobs and workstations, and it's impossible
to generalize about who will become injured. You and your co-worker
may be of different age or gender, and everyone has unique anatomical
structure, body composition, posture, and work habits. While some
people do seem immune to injury, their poor habits may catch up with
them eventually, and they may develop RSI.
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