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In safe hands

If, after a long day of typing, your hands tingle and burn and your fingers fumble as you button your jacket, you could be suffering from repetitive strain injury (RSI). Kristen McQuillin reports.

If you recognize the symptoms above, perhaps you are suffering from repetitive strain injury (RSI). You're not alone. 732,000 workers in the US missed work because of repetitive motion injuries in 1999 and as many as 50 percent of workplace injuries in 2000 were related to RSI.

What causes RSI?
In a word, overwork. Lengthy periods of repetitive motion, poor posture and short recovery periods between injuries all contribute to this condition.

Physiologically, restricted blood flow starts the downward spiral to pain and tissue damage. New Zealand's Occupational Safety and Health Service explains that cramped muscles can't carry a full supply of oxygenated blood and instead build up lactic acid. This causes pain. Without treatment, soon you have damaged tissue, swelling and injuries to nerves and tendons.

Reduce your risk
1. Short Frequent Breaks
Repetition is what causes RSI. A two-minute break every half an hour will give your hands and body a chance to relax and refresh. Get up and move around. Try not to trade one repetitive task, like typing, for another one.

It's easy to lose track of time when you're at the computer. Hours pass in the blink of an eye. A kitchen timer will help to remind you when to take a break. If you prefer a more complicated solution, there are several software products on the market especially for RSI breaks.

TimeOut for Windows (http://www.s-sc.com) interrupts you at set intervals and presents a series of stretches for you to follow along. This is intrusive but ideal for those who are forgetful about stretches.

For a more discrete reminder, Deborah Quilter's BreakTime software (http://www.isotopemedia.com/breaktime) offers quiet beeps and small pop-ups but no exercises. You'll have to remember those on your own.

2. Stretch
Mild stretching gets your blood flowing, releases pressure, and feels good, too. Stretching should not hurt; go slowly and gently. If you have RSI symptoms, consult your doctor or physical therapist before beginning any stretching regime.

Here are three easy stretches you can do at your desk during your breaks. Variations of these and others are available from ErgAerobics (http://ergaerobics.com).

Hand Flex (improves circulation)
1. Position your arms flat on your chair's armrests.
2. Make a fist and hold for three seconds.
3. Slowly open your hands fully, stretching the fingers wide.
4. Hold for three seconds.
5. Repeat ten times.

Wrist Stretch (stretches finger and wrist flexors)
1. Stretch your right arm out in front of you at shoulder height.
2. Bend your wrist back so that your fingers point toward the ceiling.
3. Use your left hand to gently pull back on your right hand's fingers.
4. Hold for five seconds. Do not "bounce" your fingers.
5. Slowly bend your wrist so your fingers point towards the floor.
6. Pull back gently and hold for five seconds.
7. Repeat five times, then switch.

Back Bow (improves circulation and flexes the lumbar region)
1. Stand at your desk with your hands on your hips.
2. Slowly arch backwards from the hips until your are looking at the ceiling. Be sure to stretch your back, not your neck.
3. Hold for five seconds.
4. Slowly straighten and bend forward from the hips to a bowing position.
5. Hold for five seconds, then return to a standing position.
6. Repeat five times.

3. Posture
Good posture promotes good circulation. An ergonomically arranged desk will go a long way to encouraging proper posture.

Head, Neck and Eyes: Your eyes should be level with (or slightly higher than) your monitor. If you need to get closer to see the screen clearly, either move the monitor toward you or increase the size of fonts. Don't lean your head toward the monitor-this causes strain to your neck, shoulders and back.

Back, Legs and Feet: Your shoulders should be straight and the curve of your back supported by a lumbar support in your chair. Your legs should be positioned with the knees slightly lower than your hips. Feet must comfortably touch the floor or a footrest.

Arms and Hands: To prevent fatigue, your forearms should rest on the arms of your chair. Your keyboard belongs level with or slightly lower than your elbows. If you use a wrist rest with your keyboard or mouse, note that is it intended for the heel of your palm, not your wrist!

Too Far Gone?
If you have RSI, or think you might, it's important to do all of the above and more. See a doctor and get a referral to a physical therapist. What begins as a minor annoyance must be treated promptly before it requires years of therapy and even surgery to correct.


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