It hurts, but I can’t stop!

Dear Lucy: My wrists are in constant low-level pain, starting last week. I’m afraid I’m developing carpal tunnel or some other RSI. This is a busy time of the semester, so I can’t just spend less time on the computer. What do I do? —Hurting

Dear Hurting: Lucy totally gets it; it’s hard to take the time to take care of yourself when you have a lot to do. But when it comes to repetitive strain injuries (RSI), those busy and stressful times are when it’s most important to pay attention to what your body is telling you. “Stress reduces blood flow to tense muscles,” explains Nurse Practitioner Jackie Sherry. “And this can make your body even more susceptible to RSIs.” 

Sherry, who has worked with many RSI patients in MIT Medical’s Occupational Health Service, tells Lucy that you can likely make some ergonomic adjustments on your own to make keyboarding more comfortable. The first, she says, is to optimize your position at your workstation. “This might involve changing the height of your chair or keyboard or making other minor tweaks to your setup,” she explains. “MIT has an online ergonomic assessment tool [MIT certificate required] that explains causes of provides important information proper positions on causes and prevention of workstation ergonomic injuries. It can help you identify problems with your current workstation and recommend changes.” 

Sherry also recommends taking “micro-breaks” to permit recovery and restoration, and making these breaks frequently enough to prevent the start of pain or discomfort. “Typically, this could be something like a one- or two-minute break every 10 to 15 minutes,” she notes. 

“You might also think about modifying your keyboard technique, including what you do with your hands when you’re not using the keyboard or mouse,” she continues. “We recommend a ‘neutral rest posture,’” she says. “Rest your hands in your lap when you’re not typing or mousing.” She also advises getting regular aerobic exercise (which, Lucy notes, is a good idea for everyone, ergonomic issues aside). “You can improve and gradually resume productive work if you follow proper techniques,” Sherry concludes.

You can find additional information on the MIT EHS (Office of Environment, Health & Safety) website, including very specific information on causes of forearm numbness and pain. And, if your self-help efforts are unsuccessful, or you’d like someone to evaluate the adjustments you’ve made on your own, you can contact EHS directly and request a site evaluation. “Our services are available to all members of the MIT community — students, faculty, staff, and post-docs,” Associate Director Robert Edwards tells Lucy. “When we do a site visit, we can often make minor adjustments on the spot. We’ll follow up with a written report and specific recommendations.”

Edwards wants members of the MIT community to be aware of other ergonomically risky activities besides keyboarding. “RSI can result from activities outside of work, like cell phone use, playing a musical instrument, or gardening,” he notes. “And lots of people have jobs that include heavy lifting or certain types of laboratory work that can lead to injury. ‘Pipetting,’ for example, can result in repetitive stress injuries to wrists, arms, and shoulders,” Edwards explains. “EHS can help. We also provide assistance on materials handling and offer ergonomics training to classes or groups, in addition to our work with individuals.”

Lucy thanks you for a great question on an important topic. Lucy appreciates the opportunity to spread the word about the great resources MIT offers in this area. She wishes you the best of luck in discovering the source of your wrist pain and making the necessary changes to your work area or technique. Happy keyboarding! —Lucy 

Back to Ask Lucy Information contained in Ask Lucy is intended solely for general educational purposes and is not intended as professional medical advice related to individual situations. Always obtain the advice of a qualified healthcare professional if you need medical diagnosis, advice, or treatment. Never disregard medical advice you have received, nor delay getting such advice, because of something you read in this column.