Last month I talked about what repetitive strain injury (RSI) is and why you should know about it. In this article, we’ll look at three habits that contribute to RSI.

How Do You Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury?

Using computer
Do you grip the mouse harder than needed?

If I asked, “What is the best way to prevent RSI?” you might say using an ergonomic keyboard or having a good office chair. While these are all important, they aren’t the main story: You!

Yes, how you sit and move while working are as, if not more, important in preventing RSI than the nature of the work you do or your equipment setup. After all, an ergonomic workstation won’t do much good if you’re holding your breath, tensing your shoulders and not taking breaks.

Shifting your habits can make a big difference in whether you feel good or are in pain at the end of your workday.

Experiment: Which of These is Easier?

To get a taste of what I mean, try this little experiment. You’ll need your phone (a drinking glass or a coffee mug would work too)

Man slumped at computer
Where will this man be sore after using his laptop?

1.  Sit slumped in your chair.

Hold your phone (or cup) in one hand and lift your arm in front of you to shoulder height (your arm is straight). Hold your arm there for a few seconds and then lower. As you repeat this a few times, pay attention to how much muscular effort it requires. Besides your arm, what other parts of you are working? If you had to hold your phone like this for an hour, where would you feel sore or strained? Set your phone down and rest.

2. Sit tall at the front of your chair.

Have your feet flat on the floor. Roll your pelvis a little forward as necessary so you sit on your “sit bones” (the bony protuberances at the bottom of your pelvis). Lift your arm in front like before, keep it there a few moments, and then lower. As you repeat this a few times, observe how your arms and shoulders don’t have to work as hard as when you were slumped.

Person holding cellphone
Lifting with support helps prevent RSI

3. If you couldn’t feel a difference….

Slowly alternate between 1 and 2. Which could you do longer without getting tired? Does the phone, or your arm, feel heavier when you’re slumped?

While this is just a silly example, we strain ourselves in smaller, more subtle ways everyday as we use computers, tablets and phones. Over time this can add up to significant pain, stiffness or injury. That’s why, when it comes to preventing repetitive strain injuries, it’s essential to solve ergonomic problems at their source: you and your behavioral habits.

3 Habits that Contribute to Repetitive Strain Injury

Man vulnerable to repetitive strain injury
Unsupported posture can lead to tension and pain.

The following are three main ways people develop—or prevent—RSI.

1.  Poor Posture

Slumped spine, hunched shoulders, head forward and uncomfortable hand/arm arrangements—these are positions you might find yourself in when you’re deeply focused, under a time crunch or just plain tired.

When your skeleton isn’t aligned in a way that supports you, your muscles are forced to do the work of your bones. Since the majority of muscles are designed to move rather than hold you up, poor posture leads to fatigue, tension and pain.

2.  Excessive Effort

Most people use more muscular effort than needed to press a key, click a mouse or hold a phone. Just think how the grip on your mouse or car’s steering wheel tightens when you’re stressed or in a hurry.

Stressed woman biting pencil
Become aware of excess tension

Then there are the areas you habitually hold when stressed, such as your jaw, shoulders or breath. All this unnecessary effort results not only in tired, stiff and sore muscles, but it can also generate excess friction in tendons, especially the small tendons in your elbow, wrist and fingers.

3.  Lack of Self-Awareness

So much of how you sit and move is unconscious. Unless something hurts, you’re generally not aware of that part of you. For example, it wasn’t until I hurt my thumb several years ago that I realized just how many things I used it for each day—picking up a cup or my purse, turning doorknobs, zipping a jacket, holding a knife when cooking, etc.

Man giving thumbs up
Listen to your body and make changes to be more comfortable

Fortunately, you can become aware of your habits and change ones that put you at risk of developing RSI or other injuries. Your body wants to feel good! You just need to listen to and give yourself the support and mobility needed to work with ease.

Tune in next month when I’ll do a deep dive into posture. I’ll help you find the skeletal support needed to be more comfortable at the computer and reduce your risk of repetitive strain injury.