My Keyboard, My Wrists, My Trip to Hell

My journey with RSI-the hellfire of our post-religious, technological era-begins innocently enough, as most odysseys do. One fall day, I find that my watch feels uncomfortable. So I simply stop wearing it. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, because I spend enough time at the keyboard that I can always check the time on my monitor. After a few weeks, I notice my arms are starting to feel like bean bags by 10 each morning, after barely an hour at the computer. I keep working through it, since I have to file columns and email people to stay connected to the world of work.

And that’s when the pain begins.

Cramping wrists and exhausted hands and forearms turn into

constant shooting nerve pain through my arms. Eventually my hands throb like ET’s special finger, whether I am keyboarding or not. It gets to the point where I can’t comfortably chop vegetables, turn a door knob, or drive a car. I realize that sitting at a computer is no longer just a mental activity, but also a physical one. But I am still hoping it will just go away. I don’t want to have this problem.

Now that I know the symptoms, I seem to meet people with it everyday. It’s like joining AA and then recognizing every other person on the street from meetings. I visit two general practitioners and a physiotherapist who all take one look at my hands and throw up theirs. None of them can pinpoint the exact cause, except overuse. They are also unable to tell me what will definitely fix the problem.

What initially sounds like paranoia from fellow writers is starting to sound possible. I hear stories of people who unable to work for over a year, or who have to change careers entirely. Everyone with an RSI story is so emotional about it. They urge me to not work at all, but this is not an option I can afford. Besides, I have no interest in signing up for the war they seem to be fighting.

The first mild effort I make is to I try is those wrist splints that remind me of Michael Jackson’s fashion choices or the booties with a metal bar that little infants wear to have their feet corrected. But I am immobilized by the splints I wear to bed. I might as well be in a crib. I feel like a bondage queen or a character in a 19th century Charlotte Perkins Gilman story. I train myself to relax and not clench my hands into fists while I sleep, I ditch the splints.

My first relief from RSI comes unexpectedly. I get a terrible flu while on a trip to New York, and am bedridden for a week. My arms feel better than they I have in months. But I now have to acknowledge that my pain will return the minute I go back to keyboarding. I am now willing to try anything to get better.

A friend recommends an acupuncturist in Chinatown. I end up in a hall with countless doors where my head scrapes the ceiling. I feel I am on floor 7 1/2, out of Being John Malkovich. The Chinese doctor first asks me to stick out my tongue and I giggle so hard he has a hard time seeing it. Then he tells me not to eat sticky rice and concludes that I am too cold. My experience with Chinese medicine and diet is limited and not a word of any of this makes the slightest sense. Despite his gentle manner and my deep apprehension, I lie down for the needles.

My first real relaxation in months is interrupted by a sudden pulsing in my back and arms. My hands involuntarily jerk. I’m thinking, What kind of magic is this acupuncture? How did I end up half-naked on a table in this mysterious building flailing around like a frog? Look where this injury has taken me.

When I return home to San Francisco, I find a local acupuncturist. I also wait 8 weeks till my appointment with the infamous local hand specialist that everyone I meet with an RSI *insists* I see. I feel better with just the promise that someone will know what to do. It’s not a nice simple thing like a broken arm, which I had actually spent the first few months wishing I had instead of RSI. That would have healed much more quickly.

The specialist spends most of the appointment on a tirade about how neglected RSI is by medicine and computer manufacturers. He keeps gesturing at the articles he has published in the books strewn across the examining room. This is a man who clearly feels like a lonely embattled soldier advocating for patients with RSI. Like everyone else I eventually talk to about RSI he fervently preaches that the human body was build for hunting and gathering, not to make tiny, focussed motions over and over. Unfortunately, he is preaching to one who already has stigmata.

The missionary zeal is a little alarming. But even in his brief exam he immediately recognizes my symptoms. He’s in favour of my acupuncture and exercise hiatus. But he also tells me, in the most presumptuous of times, what I will do:

  1. abandon my keyboard for voice dictation software
  2. try MSM, available from an organic grocery store
  3. do Feldenkrais (a kind of stretching on a long styrofoam cylinder)
  4. go see the glove lady

The voice dictation software is beyond my budget and operating system preference (it would mean switching to a PC), but in my desperation, I am willing to listen to any authority who seems to know what they’re talking about.

So I travel 12 miles south of the city and navigate unknown neighbourhoods to find the glove lady. She measures me for gloves (they are to extend from mid-bicep to the middle of my fingers). I figure, if I have to wear these stupid things (for warmth and circulation), then I might as well make them gold lamé. This is easy enough, since along with her client base of RSI suffers and wedding parties, she also has a thriving business serving drag queens and transsexuals.

I last one session at Feldenkrais and the MSM doesn’t have an effect. I try hot and cold plunging baths for my arms: every kind of experiment I hear about. But things really don’t shift till I start to listen more to my body and less to the new advice of every new RSI sufferer and health care professional I meet.

I begin to play soccer even though some people said that I should exercise. I continue sessions of acupuncture and massages with a new physiotherapist. Regular stretching and lots of walks make a huge difference. I feel so much better, that I never pick up my gloves.

Perhaps the most effective thing I do to combat my RSI is to change my ergonomic set up. In my case it takes better posture and $500 of devices: a new chair, keyboard tray and more to put things right. This means feet flat on the floor, lower back supported, monitor eye level, and most critically, a comfortable keyboard at the proper height and tilt so I don’t have to reach too far.

While these things drastically decrease my discomfort, I also learn how to work better. I unlearn my dot com economy habits: no more marathons at the keyboard. I take breaks now, and now remember how we communicated before the net came along. I use the phone instead of instant messaging or lengthy philosophical emails. And I use a headset with my phone at all times—like Janet Jackson or a Gap employee, only more glamorous—in front of a computer.

I’m now 95 percent better and I’m back at the keyboard with a new kind of faith—not in technology or medical experts, but in my own body. RSI has been a strange kind of baptism back into myself.