Tips and Apps to Help Prevent RSI And Related Health Issues

If you spend a significant duration of time on your Mac for work or play, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve experienced some degree of discomfort directly caused by that activity. If not, the chances are that you will eventually. The human race did not evolve for countless generations towards enabling mankind to sit at a desk for hours at a time and the effects of this lifestyle on our bodies can range from annoying discomfort to severe pain, or even an early death, as recently highlighted by the somewhat alarming infographic Sitting Is Killing You.

Below we’ll take a more detailed look at RSI and touch upon the larger health issues which also come with living an office-based lifestyle to see what can be done to prevent, alleviate or even cure these problems.

What Is Repetitive Strain Injury?


Repetitive Strain Injury
(RSI) is also known by several other terms, such as Repetitive Motion Injury (RMI) and Repetitive Motion Disorder (RMD) and is an injury of the muscles and nerves, caused by repetitive working practices, too much vibration while handling machines, heavy computer use and various other reasons. Though we’re focusing on RSI caused by office and computer use in this article, it can occur in many situations, stresses and environments.

While it’s not correct to state that if you spend your workday in a chair, you will definitely experience health issues, the majority of studies and doctors agree that sitting down all day is bad for your health. But then, standing in one spot all day can also be bad for your health too and let’s not fall into the trap of glamorizing manual labour, which can have sometimes devastating results on the human body. So what’s the answer? Moderation, exercise and following the correct working habits.

Correct Posture And Working Habits

Setting up your desktop so that it is as ergonomic as possible will go a long way to ensuring good health at work

Setting up your desktop so that it is as ergonomic as possible will go a long way to ensuring good health at work

The single most significant way to avoid or alleviate RSI and other related health issues is to adopt the correct posture when sat at your desk and ensure that you get regular breaks and exercise. Apple have their own guidelines which offer some great tips for staying healthy and you can read them here.

There are countless articles on the web that detail how to sit properly at a desk, but for an easy to understand guide, I like this piece on WikiHow and for more detail, this NHS health guide is worth a read too. In brief, some main points to remember are:

  • Push your hips as far back in the chair as possible and make sure your back and shoulders are supported
  • Ensure feet are flat on the floor.
  • Sit quite close to (and directly in front of) your keyboard and mouse, avoiding overreaching.
  • Wrists should only be rested on desk when not typing.
  • Adjust monitor to a position and level which prevents glare and enables focusing without effort.

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Recommended Software

While a good posture, frequent breaks and an active lifestyle are all more important than software, there are also some great applications which can be used to help minimize RSI. Some of these are:

Dragon Dictate

Dragon Dictate enables the user to spend less time with hands hovering over the keyboard

Dragon Dictate enables the user to spend less time with hands hovering over the keyboard

If like me, you write thousands of words every week and find your hands spending long hours hovering over the keyboard, Dragon Dictate could be for you. Speech recognition software has come a long way in recent years and what was once clumsy and hit-and-miss, is getting closer to perfection. Once you’ve taken the time to familiarize yourself with the software and train it to recognize your voice, Dragon Dictate can be a very useful tool indeed for transcribing long passages of text and, for myself at least, requires a small number of human corrections.

Time Out

Dejal's Time Out Free is an excellent tool to help reduce RSI and increase productivity

Dejal's Time Out Free is an excellent tool to help reduce RSI and increase productivity

It’s important to take regular breaks from your computer but even the most disciplined among us will find it difficult to keep track of time and ensure a break is taken. This is where Time Out comes in.

A free download available on the Mac App Store, Time Out has a dual approach to encouraging you to move away from the computer, with regular ‘mini-breaks’ which occur approximately each fifteen minutes and ‘regular breaks’ at fifty minute intervals. At each scheduled break, the Time Out graphic slowly fades in and takes over your screen for either fifteen seconds (mini-breaks) or ten minutes (regular breaks) and at this time the screen is inaccessible.

Time Out’s breaks can be postponed or skipped with the click of a button

In practice, Time Out is a lot less invasive than it perhaps sounds and after some time adjusting, I even found that Time Out encouraged productivity by allowing both body and mind a brief respite before focusing at 100% again.

TextExpander

Setting up Text Expander can be laborious but pays dividends in the long run

Setting up Text Expander can be laborious but pays dividends in the long run

TextExpander is a useful application that enables you to create a kind of shorthand for your Mac, so, for example, typing “MAS” can result with “Mac AppStorm”. It can be a somewhat laborious process to get all your keywords set up and to adjust to the new working method, but once you do, you’ll be more productive with less effort!

Desktop Tweaks

With a few peripherals, your MacBook can be transformed into a desktop machine

With a few peripherals, your MacBook can be transformed into a desktop machine

There are lots of options open to you when wanting to make your desktop more comfortable, here’s a few in brief:

Convert Your Portable Mac Into A Desktop

Though there’s nothing stopping you from simply placing your MacBook onto a desk and using it as normal, adding a keyboard, mouse and external display will transform it into a fully fledged desktop, with the ergonomic benefits which a desktop Mac offers. For a relatively small price one can purchase Apple’s keyboard and mouse, while using your MacBook in clamshell mode and hooking it up to an external display can complete the transformation.

Alternative Input Devices

Multi-touch trackpads and mice are awesome and can increase productivity while enriching your computing experience significantly. For a minority of people however, such peripherals can exacerbate existing RSI issues and there exists an entire market of alternative input devices, such as trackballs, ergonomic mice and keyboards.

If you can’t take a break, it can help somewhat to switch devices. If performing some light task like writing emails try briefly moving from your Mac to an iPad or iPhone, the alternative method of input will require you to use your muscles in a slightly different way .

Standing Desks

Standing desks are increasingly popular as of late and while they don’t single-handedly cure all health issues related to office work (and can cause some unique issues of their own), a standing desk is likely to be an improvement over sitting down all day. There seems to be mixed opinions on the health benefits of using a standing desk, but for a personal account, I would recommend reading this article by influential blogger Gina Trapani, Why and How I Switched to a Standing Desk.

Sitting On An Exercise Ball

Personally I’ve had no success with this method and was even told that it could do more damage than good by a physiotherapist. Still, some people maintain that switching their office chair to an exercise ball helps their posture and back/neck issues, as blogger Wendy Bumgardner details here.

Conclusion

I hope that this article does not appear too alarmist as it’s perfectly possible to live a healthy life while working with a computer. Different approaches to the problems of RSI and general office based health will suit different people, depending on circumstance and each person’s workplace’s policies.

However, if there is one thing that can probably be applied across the board, it’s that maintaining one position (especially a seated position), can damage your health significantly, but understanding the risks and making sure you’re minimizing the danger will go a long way to ensuring you stay healthy.


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  • http://www.mothsoftware.com Beatrix Willius

    Get Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health by Thomas Hanna. This book describes the reasons why most humans have problems of this kind. And it shows you what to change.

  • Benoit Desroches

    This is a really nice article. I had some health problems related to the computer in the past which I must deal with everyday since then. It always surprise me to see that people are not aware of all the pain a computer can cause.

    I really appreciate this article and I will share it with friends.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.appleumbrella.com Apple Umbrella

    love your reviews this one also useful.

  • James Carrington

    After suffering form tendonitis/RSI in my mouse hand (right hand), I switched to using a tablet full time with my left hand. I’m left handed however so the switch was easy for me. It helps just to rest the bad hand for a few months. The pen is a much more natural position for your hand and wrist than with a mouse.

    The biggest thing for me however was just learning to take a break, coming home from working on a computer all day, to then jump on my laptop at home with a trackpad in the evening, it’s a recipe for injury! Get off of the computer and go play outside, worked for me! :)

  • Susan Jenner

    I came across a product that makes moving the mouse easier on smooth surfaces. This product alone has eased the pain in my arm that I would normally feel on a day-to-day basis. I will use them with my mouse from now on.

    Link to website:
    http://www.fliders.com

  • http://marcusebarnes.com Marcus Barnes

    I decided to test out Time Out (free) as a result of reading this article. Overall, I’m very pleased with Time Out (free) and will continue to use it at work. Note, that if you’ve been interrupted in between breaks (mirco breaks or long breaks), you will want to familiarize yourself with the “reset breaks” feature.

  • Caroline

    I use Dragon Dictate, it takes a while to train it to recognize your voice, but (with a good microphone) it is pretty accurate. Repetitive Strain Injury is a huge topic, I’ve compiled a resource about Repetitive Strain Injuries in particular how to prevent RSI at work, with a focus on Ergonomics. Please take a look here and let me know what you think: http://blog.jpofficeworkstations.com.au/2013/03/how-ergonomics-minimises-computer.html

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