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Working from your laptop all day?  Try these tips to minimize your risk of injury.

See these 4 pictures?  They are 4 places from which I’ve worked this summer.

repetitive strain injury office

Notice any similarities?

Other than the same computer, one thing that should stand out is that all of the ‘offices’ that I worked from were pretty informal.  If you’re reading this from your office then you’re probably scrolling with your mouse, typing on a full-sized keyboard, and wondering why I am even bringing this up as you sit back in your comfy chair.

The reason I am bringing this up is that last week I read a post from Levels.io founder Pieter Levels titled “We have an epidemic of bad posture.”  It focused on the consequences many remote workers faced as a result of working from hotels, coffee shops, and friends’ tables, namely Repetitive Strain Injury or RSI.

After reading the post, I realized some of the discomfort I had been experiencing in my right wrist could be a result of RSI and sought out to determine how I could prevent it in the future (and stop it from getting worse).  After all, I don’t plan on changing my remote lifestyle and definitely plan to work from some more sofas, living rooms, and coworking spaces in the near future.

 

What is Repetitive Strain Injury?

According to the NHS, RSI is

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a general term used to describe the pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons caused by repetitive movement and overuse.

In the context of digital nomads and remote workers, this can relate to everything from refusing to use an external keyboard and mouse to having chronically bad posture due to where you work.

 

How is it different than Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

While RSI and Carpal Tunnel do share a few similar characteristics, including how they are caused, they are quite different in the areas of the body that they affect.  The main symptom of Carpal Tunnel is a numbness in the hand caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist whereas RSI can impact the entire arm, back, and even neck.

Still, it’s possible to have both or to have your hands and wrists affected by RSI and not Carpal Tunnel - check with a doctor if you are unsure.

 

How can you combat RSI?

As the name implies, repetition is the primary culprit of RSI, and though there is no solution for needing a computer to make a living, there are changes to your equipment, routine, and exercise schedule than can reduce your risk of being affected.

Upgrade Your Equipment

Yes, I agree that there it is incredibly liberating to be able to plop down anywhere with wifi, open your laptop, and get to work.  The truth, however, is that laptops are not designed to be used long term and their keyboards and touchpads create awkward movements for your hands, fingers, arms, and wrists.  

repetitive strain injury gaming

 

While I don’t expect you to lug a PC around everywhere you go, there are some easy upgrades you can make to your work equipment to reduce the strain on your body.

 

roost office

 

  • Full-size Keyboard - not only will this allow your wrists to spread out into a more natural and less cocked position, but it should also lower your typing position.  If you use a Mac, iMore has a great write up on some good keyboard options.

 

  • Ergonomic Mouse - some people love trackpads but I am not one of them.  I try and use a mouse whenever possible and highly recommend you do the same - it not only moves my hand into a more natural position, I find it easier to use when working.  

 

  • Laptop Stand - it turns out staring down at your computer isn’t doing your back and neck any favors and utilizing a laptop stand will ensure your computer is raised to the correct level so that less strain is put on your eyes and body.  Both Pieter and some nomad friends I reached out to said the Roost Stand was the most popular option due to its compact nature, but a quick search on Amazon yielded some other good looking options if you don’t want to spend $75.

 

If you’re looking for some tips on how to get set up at home, check out this recent post on Inspiring Home Offices.

 

Exercise and Take Stretch Breaks Regularly

It’s already a good idea to take regular breaks no matter where your office is, but it becomes doubly important to incorporate stretching into these breaks if you feel you’re at risk for RSI.  Stretching helps relieve any muscles or tendons that may have become agitated due to repeated motions and ensures that you are refreshed when you sit back down.

 

Here are a few stretches to start with:

 

In addition to these stretching breaks, it’s important to try and exercise regularly to keep your body in good shape and better equipped to last through the days where you might not have a proper desk or any of the aforementioned accessories.

If you don’t already have an exercise routine, consider starting with one of these:

 

  • Running - Running is one of the best exercises you can do because not only does it incorporate your entire body, it doesn’t take any equipment to perform.  

 

  • Weight Training - Using weights is a great way to target muscles that might be giving you problems.  For instance, you might feel fatigue in your lower back after a long day or working and being able to directly strengthen that part of your body is a great way to prevent it.

 

  • Yoga - Yoga is amazing for making your core stronger and to help to correct your posture, two things that can reduce your risk for Repetitive Stress Injury.  It’s also easy to do in your home and there are tons of Youtube courses you can follow.

 

Thoroughly Research Where You Work

Obviously, McDonald’s is one of the premier places for remote workers due to their unlimited refills, but if you sit on one of those Play Place benches long enough you’ll start to realize their limitations.

 

repetitive stress injury bench

 

The same is true for a lot of places where remote workers tend to set up shop - they aren’t conducive to good posture or the long term health of your body.  Look back to my ‘offices’ from before, I was sitting on benches, in airports, and at picnic tables and would have continued to do so had I not read Pieter’s article.  

It goes without saying that you can’t fully investigate every place you work beforehand, but you’d be surprised what an email can accomplish.  

Not sure what to ask?  Start with these questions, they are beneficial regardless of if you are working from a coworking spot or a guest house:

 

  • Is there a proper desk and chair available?

  • Are the tables and chairs adjustable?

  • Is there room to move around and do stretches?

  • Do you have monitors, keyboards, and mice available for use?

  • How much space am I allotted if I were to bring my own?

 

Winding Down

Not every remote worker or digital nomad will suffer from Repetitive Stress Injury or Carpal Tunnel and these are not the only things you can do to combat it.  Still, if you’re reading this and are a remote worker that loves working from your Macbook, you have to consider that you’re at a higher risk than those who prefer an office.  While I am not about to go out and buy all the equipment mentioned in this post, I have begun to incorporate more stretching into my day to break up the routine.  My advice is that you do the same.

UPDATE

After writing this I went and ordered a new keyboard and was fortuante enough to be able to use a friend's office until it arrived.  Here's my current setup, this time with my health in mind:

Improved office for Repetitive Stress Injury