Thesis writing is a pain in the arm

Tips for avoiding or coping with thesis-induced tendonitis

I’ve been having some pain in my arm since about January, but since I’ve finished my lab work and been based solely at the computer, it has become unbearable. I tried changing my workspace and taking more frequent breaks, but it just seems to be getting worse. I finally went to the doctor, who referred me to a physiotherapist. It turns out I’ve got tendonitis and possibly a trapped nerve which is aggravated whenever I use my arm, and which is going to require ongoing physio.

Obviously this has a big impact on my ability to work. Typing or using the mouse for more than a few minutes at a time is pretty painful. It’s also made it difficult to do other things – everything from driving and carrying groceries to doing yoga and kneading bread dough now causes problems.

Of course I’m far from alone in experiencing this kind of injury. I know of quite a few people who have developed or aggravated pre-exisiting problems in their wrists, arms, neck or back during periods of intensive computer work. When I mentioned my problem on facebook, I had about a dozen comments from fellow sufferers within a couple of minutes, most offering helpful suggestions along with some sympathy. Given how common the problems seem to be, I thought I’d pass along some of the advice I’ve received from friends, the college occupational health advisor and my psysiotherapist in hopes that it might help someone else.

First of all, if you aren’t experiencing these sorts of problems, do everything you can to prevent them! Whether taknig preventative measures or trying to cope after problems develop, the advice is much the same and seems to fall into three main categories: workstation ergonomics, support software, and behaviour change.

Workstation ergonomics
Ensure you’re workstation is step up properly. This could include adjusting your desk height, chair height, back support, foot rest, or monitor height. Make sure your keyboard and mouse are positioned to minimise stress on your wrists and allow your arms to rest comfortably. Your occupational health department should be able to provide advice on this (Imperial College’s computer health advice can be found here).

Using a standard mouse or my laptop touchpad really aggravates my arm, so the first thing I did was swap to using the mouse with my left hand. However this is still pretty inefficient for me, so I’m looking into more ergonoic alternatives. One option is a vertical mouse, which allows you to keep your wrist in a more natural position while using it. Another option is something like a tablet and stylus. A couple of my friends swear by this one for its ease of use and the ability to swap between right- and left-hand use. I’m going to give both a try before deciding what’s best for me.

Typing is also a problem. I don’t tend to use my laptop keyboard for typing, but instead have a larger external keyboard. One friend suggested having two keyboards with slightly different shapes so you use slightly different muscles. Another suggested that simple gel wrist supports are a good alternative to fancy (read: expensive) ergonomic keyboards. However, if you want to minimise your typing, then you need to consider software options.

Support software
One of the most obvious options for reducing problems associated with typing and using the mouse is to minimise these activities by using voice recognition software. The option that most people mentioned is called Dragon, but there are also programmes built into both Windows and Apple operating systems. The upside of these is reduced need to type, but the downside is that they can require quite a lot of training. For example, I just started using the Windows voice recognition software today, and the following is what this sentence comes out as before editting.

For example, I just I mean using the windows voice recognition software today, in the following is what this sentence comes out as the four editting.

It still leaves something to be desired, but you should have seen what it came out with before I started training it! There are also limitations on how well it integrates with some programmes, but I am hoping to at least be able to use it for emails and some writing after I do a bit more training.

Another programme I’ve been using is a free app called WorkRave  which you can set to remind you to take short breaks and move around. I have it set to remind me to take a 30 second microbreak every 15 minutes, and a 5 minute rest break every hour. It also suggests some quick exercises during the rest breaks, which brings us to the behaviour bit.

Behaviour change
The best thing you can do is try to avoid working at the computer for extended periods of time. If you can, work in blocks, then switch to something else like lab work. If you’re at the point, like me, where you are fairly tied to the computer, then try to break it up with blocks of reading and take frequent breaks. It’s good idea to get up and move around every hour. Go and get a glass of water, but get it from another floor or another building just to make yourself move around a bit more.
Finally, keep a positive attitude. It might not be easy, especially if you ‘feel like a nerd for being injured by a computer’ as one friend put it, but lots of people have been through it and it will get better!* The amount of support that I’ve received has certainly helped, and I’d like to thank everyone for all the suggestions and encouragement. If anyone has anymore top tips, please put them in the comments!

*That said, another friend suggested that in the latter stages of a PhD, smashing your head repeatedly into the keyboard might be the best bet. Maybe not the best advice, but certainly tempting at times…

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