Since I was about 9 or 10 years old, I’ve spent a lot of time in front of a computer. In my teens it was mostly to play video games (how can I forget "Wing Commander" and "Doom"?), and after that it was mostly a mix of school, work and hobbies.
Being an “in-my-head” introvert, there were long periods of my life when a perfect day would include 10-14 hours on a computer or reading a book. I knew nothing about ergonomics, so my computer desk was exactly what you’d imagine if you took all "best practices" and threw them out the window; I was sitting on a wooden kitchen chair, my keyboard was on the desk up high and my monitor was too low, so I tended to read things hunched over, resting my head in the palm of my hand with my elbow resting on the desk. Basically, it was an ergonomic nightmare!
And it all took a toll on my health. I suffered for years from repetitive strain injury (RSI), back pain, and neck pain, and I'm sharing this because I hope my experience can be of some help to others. I can’t make promises, but maybe what worked for me will also help you.
The pain begins
When I was young, I only rarely experienced back and neck pain. It was only in my mid-20s that serious RSI in my hands, wrists and arms, and neck/back pain became an issue. It began with a weird tingling sensation in my forearms, and a strange aching in my right hand. It got more intense until any typing or mouse use was uncomfortable. I also had much more frequent back and neck problems.
I'd been working long hours at the computer and playing some first-person shooter games to unwind in the evenings, so I thought I'd just overdone it, and that after some time off, all the pains and aches and strange annoying sensations would go away.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my problems were about to get much worse.
Some months later, I had trouble sleeping because even the weight of my arms resting on the mattress was enough to cause radiating pain into my elbows, and my back pain was so acute when I sat down that I sometimes just paced around my apartment for hours, not able to sit. It got so bad that I became depressed. Would I have to quit my job and find a line of work that didn’t involve so much typing and sitting at a desk? I couldn’t even start to imagine what such a life would look like for me.
But hey, I’m a problem-solver. A little common sense and a little Google can solve anything, right?
A Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard. (Photo: Ryo FUKAsawa/Flickr)
Ergonomics: Important, but not enough
My first step was to learn about ergonomics. I bought a really good chair (a Humanscale Freedom Chair with headrest) that I had seen featured on a TED talk. I raised my monitor to the proper height and I lowered my keyboard so my elbows were relaxed and at just about right angles. I looked into all kinds of fancy keyboards, including the exotic Kinesis Advantage. I bought the Humanscale Switch mouse, which is tilted for a more natural wrist angle. I got a trackball. I got a trackpad. I switched to a standing desk.
Though they were no doubt good for me, none of the ergonomic tweaks cured my RSI and back pain.
What was most frustrating was that most of the ergonomic changes that I made worked ... at first. But a few days later, I would be back to square one.
Exercise: Also important, but not a cure for me
I tried another thing touted as a cure: exercise. Stretching and strength training were supposed to lead to better posture and a more resilient body that would be able to handle the stresses of the desk job. I apparently had simply let myself get too weak and inflexible.
So I started exercising more. I started lifting weights during my breaks, and I tried to go for a walk around the neighborhood every evening. I installed a pull-up bar in a doorway, did pushups, squats, various core exercises. I also tried to eat better and looked into taking vitamins and supplements, figuring maybe I was missing some crucial nutrient.
It was all beneficial, no doubt, but my RSI and back pain remained. As with the ergonomic adjustments, I felt like each improvement was making a difference, but that feeling never lasted long.
Books: Knowledge is power, right?
RSI seemed to be a common problem, so I expected there would be many good books on the topic. Sadly, few were well-rated by reviews, and the most recommended one only made me more depressed.
I read “It’s Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome,” a book co-written by an expert in the treatment of RSI and someone who suffered from it. The blurb claims: “This guide offers computer users who suffer from repetitive strain injury (RSI) an effective program for self-care. It explains the symptoms, prevention, and treatment of RSIs and also addresses the often-overlooked root causes of RSIs. This holistic program treats the entire upper body with ergonomics, exercise, and hands-on therapy, increasing the likelihood that surgery and drugs may be avoided.”
This is what Carpal Tunnel Syndrome looks like. (Photo: Blausen.com/Wikipedia)
The most beneficial thing I learned was that most RSI is not carpal tunnel syndrome and doesn’t require surgery, which is reassuring. But the overall message of the book was: This is a chronic condition that you’ll probably be stuck with for the rest of your life. You can learn to manage and mitigate it through some exercise and a rigid schedule of breaks throughout the day and whole days of time off, but you probably won’t be cured. Ever. And don’t even think about being undisciplined and spontaneous with computer use; you need to stick to the plan forever.
I found this troubling because when I get into a state of "flow," the last thing I want is a timer reminding me to take a break.
Should I just resign myself to the idea that I'd have to live with chronic pain forever?
Physiotherapy: Let’s see what the experts can do
My last hope was seeking professional help. I found a good physiotherapist who specialized in RSI problems and back/neck pains. I ended up going several times, and for a while it seemed to be helping. I followed all her recommendations, we even tried some type of cryotherapy using a weird machine that froze the surface of my skin.
After a while, though, my symptoms were back, and I was beginning to feel I had exhausted all possibilities.
Eureka! A new approach
Out of sheer despair, one day I mindlessly typed “How I cured my RSI” into Google. This led me to Aaron Iba’s story, recounting how he had suffered from "severe hand, wrist, and forearm pain" for years, and how he'd tried all kinds of things, but every time it was only a temporarily fix.
He said what ultimately cured him was a book by Dr. John E. Sarno called "The Mindbody Prescription." What got my attention was that Iba was a computer programmer with a good BS detector, and upon hearing about the book, he was skeptical too. In his words:
- The term "mindbody" sounds like unscientific new age nonsense.
- It contradicts conventional wisdom about RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome.
- It sounds too good to be true.
This healthy skepticism along with his similar backstory made me give the book a try.
At the time, I was keeping a daily log of exercise and of how my RSI was doing. Up to that point, it was an almost unbroken series of frowning smiley faces with notes about the mild painkillers I had to take.
That changed the day I discovered Sarno's book. There's a dramatic change: a series of smiling faces — until I simply stopped keeping a log because I was cured. That was about three years ago, and I’m still free from RSI and abnormal back pain. (I hurt myself sometimes, like everyone, but it goes away quickly instead of lasting for months.) Most of the time if I start to feel that familiar tingling in my hand and forearm, all I have to do to make it go away is re-read some highlighted passages from that book. It's that powerful!
If you suffer from RSI or back/neck pain, or other similar conditions, I encourage you to give this book a try. Over decades of practice, Sarno has discovered interesting things about how the human body works. He takes an empirical approach; he has figured out treatments that work, even if he doesn’t always understand everything about why they work. It's a bit like how people knew how to deal with rust on metal long before they could explain what was causing the rust at the atomic level. There’s no hocus-pocus or supernatural in the book; it’s all about the link between our brains and our bodies and how for some people, psychological issues can cause physiological issues.
Hopefully someday we’ll have a more scientific explanation for many common forms of RSI and back pain, but in the meantime, Sarno’s approach has been working for many people. There’s a website dedicated to people thanking him and sharing their stories, including some who suffered from various chronic pains for 20-plus years and were cured.
I won't try to summarize the book. I don't think I can do it justice, and reading the original will always be better than a summary. My goal is just to encourage you to give it a try with an open mind, especially if you’ve tried everything else and nothing has worked.
So that’s my story. I hope it helps. Don't give up hope, it is possible to cure RSI and back/neck pain!