Three months ago, I started feeling a pain in my hands. In the beginning, I ignored it. I thought it was not going to stay. Then the pain intensified, and I reached a point where I couldn’t use a keyboard/mouse for more than 10 minutes in a row. I quickly realized I had RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury).

Working with a laptop is a part of my job and, I love what I’m doing for a living. As you might guess, I completely freaked out. I didn’t want to be forced to change jobs.

Disclaimer: This post is NOT intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice.

RSI - Repetitive Strain Injury

A repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a painful medical condition that can cause damage to the hands, wrists, upper arms, and backs, especially of people who use computers and other forms of keyboard.
dictionary.cambridge.org

Step 1: Identifying the cause

I’m used to working from cafes / co-working spaces. My posture always kept changing. Because of the lockdown, I had to work from home, at the same desk.

Here is what my configuration looked like:

a bad desk and a cheap IKEA chair

It didn’t take me long to identify the root cause. Ergonomic was pretty bad:

  • a basic chair that can’t be adjusted
  • a very small desk where my arm can’t rest
  • the Apple Magic trackpad. As I only use one screen, I constantly use the trackpad to switch between desktops. Doing long key travel is bad.

Also, because of the bad equipment, my wrist was “broken” instead of being straight.

hand positions

Step 2: Fixing the pain

To fix this pain, I took several actions:

#1 - Icing

Fill a bucket of water and ice and put your hand in it for ~3 minutes. All your pain will disappear… for 20 minutes or so. It feels like magic!

I’ve been using this technique when the pain was at its peak. I was working with an ice bucket next to me. But icing only reduces the pain and I don’t like to sweep problems under the carpet.

#2 - Stopping video games

I’ve been playing Age of Empires 2 for years. If you don’t know this game (shame on you!), it’s a strategic game where speed is a key to victory. By speed, I mean to perform many actions per minute (aka APM).

In other words, it’s incompatible with RSI. After playing for a few minutes, my hand was on fire. I also tried to play other games with a gamepad and I ended up with the same pain. I had to stop playing.

#3 - Taking a one-week laptop free

When I realized that something was wrong with my body, I came to my manager and told him I had to take a week break for the next week. I explained the situation and he understood.

To be honest, regardless of my manager’s answer, it was clear in my head that I will not work the following week. Health comes first!

It wasn’t the most exciting holiday since I couldn’t do outdoor activities (rain+covid lockdown) or coding/playing video games.

#4 - [FAIL!] Using Voice Control (control computer with voice)

I remember a few months ago, I read a blog post from Joshua Comeau, about hands-free coding. In his article, he explains how he writes code by using his voice.

Since I didn’t feel ready to invest in dedicated software, I started using Voice Control, MacOS’s default tool to interact with your laptop without using a keyboard/mouse. It turned into a complete disaster!

For navigation it’s okay but, when it comes to typing, it becomes unusable. When I said “Type: maxpou dot fr”, it was converted into “Mexboroughblue don’t ever ever” 🥲. I guess the algorithm wasn’t trained by a French guy speaking English.

After spending 4 hours with this tool, I gave up.

#5 - Doing wrist exercises

stretch hands exercices

Many professionals recommend doing wrist exercises to prevent RSI, even if you don’t have it. Like many people (I guess), I ignored these recommendations.

It’s probably one of the first things I adopted when I started getting RSI symptoms. I did these exercises 3 times a day (5mins / session). I also set an alarm on my phone not to forget.

#6 - Improving my workstation

I’m used to living in short-term accommodations. At the moment I live in Berlin but, I don’t think I’ll commit to this city. It is just temporary and I don’t want to invest in a proper setup. I already have a laptop stand and I use external input devices. I believe it’s a good thing for my posture.

Since RSI can be a career killer I had to improve my workstation.

my improved workstation

  • switched from basic chair to an office chair;
  • alternate from a trackpad to a mouse from time to time. But when I use the mouse, I’ve to put the trackpad away otherwise my hand goes naturally on the trackpad;
  • made a standing desk. I actually use an empty room in my apartment as my 2nd office. You can see the standing desk is very basic but it does the job!!! I usually spend my morning standing and the afternoon sitting.
  • use wrist rest. I don’t find this thing very comfortable when I’m seated. So I only use it when I’m standing.

It’s not perfect but, I feel better at the end of the day!

#7 - Wearing a brace wrist

my brace wrist

I bought this brace wrist based on advice. I read that wearing a rigid brace wrist when you sleep/do offscreen activities can be beneficial. It’s very uncomfortable to wear one when you are eating/cooking. So, I only used mine when I slept.

It took me a few days to get used to it. But I think wearing it for a month was beneficial to me.

#8 - Taking more breaks

It’s recommended to take a 5 minutes break every 20-30 minutes of continuous activity. I’ve found out that there are many occasions to take a break:

  • Go to the coffee shop
  • Do some hand stretch exercises
  • Cook
  • Prepare coffee

Also, I use more video calls than used to. You know when a colleague requires some help. Instead of long slack messages, I tend to favour quick calls with a screen sharing session.

Epilogue

5 months after, most of the pain is almost gone 🥳!

But I still suffer when I spend too much time typing. I can also use the laptop for recreational use, but I know I’ve limited time until the pain returns. I think I’ll have to live with RSI since it’s never cured completely.

One of the things I’ve learned is to work smarter. I also take more breaks during my workday. I felt a bit guilty at the beginning but, I now realized that it didn’t really affect my productivity.

Last but not least, I couldn’t finish this article without mentioning Swyx and his great post about RSI (swyx.io). His blog post was like a gold mine to me.

About the author

Hey, I'm Maxence Poutord, a software engineer specialized in web technologies. In my day-to-day job, I'm working as a senior front-end engineer at VSware. As a digital nomad, I'm living where the WiFi and sun are!