Six years ago tomorrow, I was typing happily away at my computer when my hands stopped working. When I say I couldn’t use my hands, I mean that for the next many months I couldn’t:
- cut food with a knife and fork
- tie my shoelaces
- turn the key in the lock
- squeeze the hand brakes on my bike
- wash my hair very well
- hold a pen or write
- type a single word on my computer
- push buttons on a cell phone
- and much much more!
Here’s the thing: this happened to me one day in November, suddenly, while I was basically a healthy person, and completely changed my life my senior year at college. Looking back, I recalled that the few days before I had noticed some pain in my forearms and wrists, but I had emails to write, a class to organize, papers to draft, and just plugged right along, pretty oblivious to the pain, until I just couldn’t use my hands anymore. Fortunately Stanford has a great disability resource center, paying other students to take notes and tests for me (indeed!), providing voice recognition software, etc. Plus its hand clinic had amazing physical therapy, involving fun things like dunking your arms in freezing then scalding then freezing water, running electrical current through them, making me take three Advils every four hours until a sufficiently painful hole was burned in my stomach, ladida… But I was lucky. Had I been working at the time, or really anywhere other than Stanford, I would’ve had to go on long term disability, sitting at home not even twiddling my thumbs.
And it lasted a LONG time, I had this problem acutely for about a year (acute = Mom had to cut my 22nd birthday steak for me the next year), mildly for another year (mild = continued going to PT, taking breaks from typing, stretching etc.), and persistent probably the rest of my life (such as when I tried and failed to bowl this week). All because I needed to finish an email (or twenty).
As the weather turns cold, and stress levels build up ahead of year end, the risk of getting acute tendinitis increases. So as today’s friendly public service announcement, my non-medical self wanted to share with you a few of the subtle warning signs that can lead suddenly to a really ridiculously serious problem:
THE WARNING SIGNS OF TENDINITIS
- You find yourself shaking your hands out while typing.
- You feel burning tightness carrying groceries, or otherwise clutching things.
- If you massage your forearms, it hurts. If you push on certain tendons, you find your fingers moving of their own accord.
WHAT TO DO
- STOP TYPING for at least 2-3 minutes (docs told me 5, but c’mon, let’s be realistic). It’s really hard — really hard — to do. So you have to actual stand up and go to the bathroom. Get some tea or coffee. Drink some water.
- Drink more water. Lots of health problems (muscle aches, jet lag, hangovers, headaches, tiredness, etc.) can be solved by a few glasses of water (quoth me).
- Stretch not just your hands/wrists but your neck and shoulders, where the tension starts. This seems to be a great site: http://www.will-harris.com/yoga/rsi.html with some pictures of good stretches.
- STOP TYPING. It takes way way less time to get tendinitis than get rid of it.
- Take a break from activities like tennis, rock climbing, bowling, etc that require gripping things.
- Go for a jog or walk to loosen up your shoulders, and really let your arms swing, your palms open up wide.
- Sit better. If you have sloppy posture (like me) pilates and tai chi help. Rah core muscle development!
- Get a good ergonomic set up at work or wherever you spend time on the computer. Laptop keyboards or hard keyboards are hazardous. Invest in a groovy and SEPARATE keyboard, and put your laptop on top of some books (or a silk covered trophy box you found lying around your office, as the case may be…). Looking down at the laptop keyboard pulls on your neck and helps bring on tendinitis. Get a separate mouse too, since the touchpad is what ultimately did me in six years ago; if you never take your hands off the keyboard, and use your thumb to move the cursor, your tendons don’t get a break. (In the old typewriting days, people never got tendinitis because hitting the lever to advance the page was enough of a break for the tendons to relax, so they wouldn’t start getting inflammed.)
- STOP TYPING. I can’t say this enough. Let’s think about the tradeoffs here: getting this email out OR being able to use your cellphone for a year… hmm….
If you have any questions about this, please let me know. If you want to look for more info, the search term is “repetitive stress injury” or “RSI.” And you can call me to save you from typing!
Please feel free to forward on!
Your friendly public service announcement person, Liz