How I Overcame RSI

A few months ago, I decided to go swimming: an activity which I haven’t participated in for quite some time: rather than the expected breathlessness and cramps in the legs or shoulders, I was shocked to find my fingers to be the problem – more specifically the ring and little fingers of my right hand…

As I covered a few lengths using my favoured breaststroke technique, the pain built to unbearable levels, with my right wrist now joining in the concerto of pain…more than this, I felt as if I had punched a wall!

All strength in my right hand had gone…my left hand could cut through the water with ease, but my right hand was as limp as a rubber washing up glove…this wouldn’t do! I made it to the poolside to take a breather; as I rested, I thought about what could be causing this and then it struck me: my computer mouse was the culprit!

The Problem
I spend my entire working day in front of a computer screen…two screens in fact: for years my primary concern was that my eyes would be first to feel the effect of this daily wear and tear, but it turns out that my pesky mouse took that honour, but how?

As an IT professional, operating a mouse is as much a part of my job as turning a steering wheel is to a cabbie: you might be in a similar situation but are lucky enough to feel no pain (yet!) I didn’t either, for the best part of a decade, but suddenly, there I was, clutching my wrist and bending my fingers in pain, just because I fancied a swim…the funny thing is, as a fairly paranoid individual in general, I have used gel wrist rests for years and even an ergonomic gaming mouse (the type which has adjustable weights and interchangeable body shapes, something I had figured was built with the human body in mind) – I thought that I had the perfect set up, but this combination of tech artefacts turned out to be a sure-fire way of messing up my breast-stroke…

The next day, at work, I was a bit more observant about my ‘mousing’ habits: I noticed that I would tend to grip the input device in a ‘claw’ like manner, with thumb, ring and little finger all grasping the sides of the device, with index and middle fingers being used to operate the buttons and scroll-wheel…essentially, my pinkie felt like it was being forced to grip the device, with nothing (like a tray, as some mice have) for it to rest on as the mouse was gliding around the pad;

I hadn’t really noticed it in work previously, but after the swimming episode, I could now detect a slight numbness and pain extending through my palm, wrist and fingers…when I’d take my hand off the mouse to type, the right hand couldn’t match the speed or dexterity of the left, even though I’m right handed…this was a real shock to me!;

It was as if my right hand was experiencing some sort of lag!…I put this down to the numbing sensation which my darned mouse had been guilty of building up all these years…I vowed to solve this anyway I could…

Looking for a Solution
My quest for a solution was one which saw me explore many options:

  • I crafted an old business card into a nifty pinkie tray, which I then blu-tacked on to the side of the mouse…this took some origami skills to get into the right shape – when set up, it seemed to help a bit, but didn’t solve the problem completely…the flatter ‘palming’ position my hand now took was a lot more comfy, but the pain didn’t go away completely – this modified grip also had a negative impact on the precision of my input, making it feel as if I was waxing a car surface instead of selecting things with a pointer
  • I attempted to adjust my seating position and the placement of my desktop items…I found the optimum configuration to be achieved by placing my keyboard centrally between both of my monitors, with the mouse-pad being positioned with its gel-filled cushion right at the edge of the desk.
  • As my mouse was the fancy kind with weights, I stripped it right down to be as light as possible…this definitely helped, but with the weakness in my right hand, it still felt like I had been lugging a bowling ball around by the end of the day.
  • I stuck a cushion on my office chair’s arm, to allow my elbow to experience less strain.

Problem Solved (so far!)
Ultimately, I found salvation for my right hand…a graphics tablet made by a famous Japanese manufacturer of such devices (and a common sight in the hands of digital designers everywhere)…this proved to be the answer to all of my RSI problems;

The graphics tablet ended up replacing my mouse for everything – instead of grasping at a big hunk of plastic, I was now wielding a lightweight, battery-free pen which didn’t even have to make contact with the surface of the tablet to work… using this, I began to enjoy the following benefits:

  • The pain is now all but eliminated – there is still some numbness, but it feels like it is on the mend…this is in part, I feel, down to the more natural wrist position which my hand ends up in whilst operating this device.
  • The pen and tablet took some configuring, especially as I was using it on a dual screen setup – reconfiguring one of the tablet buttons to toggle between screens made adjusting the sensitivity super simple…when detailed movements were required, the entire tablet surface could be dedicated to a single screen, or both for general purpose…whether using an image manipulation program or navigating through my desktop files, the right setting was just a button press away.
  • As the tablet I use also doubles up as a touch-sensitive touchpad (like a giant laptop input device), I now find that I can put the pen down when I fancy a rest and just navigate using my fingertips.
  • The option to click can be controlled many ways: the nib can be tapped on the tablet surface, one of two small button can be pressed on the pen body itself (thumb or index finger can be used here), physical buttons on the tablet can be used, whilst a tap with the fingers on the touchpad surface can also perform this action (with a tap from two fingers giving a right click, with 3 or more fingers producing a ‘drag’ or ‘scroll’ effect) – this gives me the option to switch around techniques to vary the input actions and reduce a build-up of strain caused by constantly doing the same motion over and over ad infinitum.
  • Multi-touch gestures mean that I can pinch to zoom, rotate the screen canvas and all the other things we are used to doing on smartphones and tablets these days – this enhances my computing experience and presents alternative input options.
  • Flipping the pen round makes ‘erasing’ items super simple…the ‘nib’ side is pressure sensitive, so it operates much like a real pen would, whilst the ‘eraser’ side automatically selects an alternate tool (for example, an erase tool) when set up correctly.
  • One bonus comes when both hands are needed on the keyboard – the pen can sit between fingers as I type a command in, meaning that it is always ready to be used.

My recommendation
If you start to feel the slightest bit of pain or discomfort with your computer input devices, stop using them, and think about mixing things up a bit:

  • I still keep my mouse connected to my computer for the odd task, switching between pen and touchpad as the day progresses.
  • Keyboard shortcuts also seem to help quite a lot and can actually make your day more productive.
  • Graphics tablets are not so expensive these days – the one I use actually cost less than the fancy gaming mouse I had been using.

From my experience with RSI, I have learnt that small changes can make all the difference to your wellbeing.

Alex McLeod is an industry expert when it comes to It Outsourcing, who describes himself as an ‘ultra-geek’: when he is not assisting his clients, he can frequently be found on technology blogs reviewing the latest techie kit.