Tips for reducing repetitive stress injuries as a programmer

Workrave screenshot
Workrave screenshot

RSIs, or repetitive stress injuries, can spell doomsday for a programmer or web developer.  It’s what many of us fear the most; after all, it’s our life’s work, our passion, our love.  I think it is safe to say that pretty much every programmer has felt wrist pain at one time or another.  Many times, it goes ignored, which only worsens the problem.  There is a lot of research in this area, and as a result there are many preventative measures that can be taken to prevent RSIs.

  • Ensure your workstation is ergonomically correct in every way.
  • Buy a decent ergonomic keyboard.
    • Ergonomic keyboards can be expensive, but often times they will prove to be a worthy investment.  I have been using the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 ($31+) recently, and it has made quite a difference.  Some of the features that have helped tremendously are listed below.
      • Zoom (located between split in keyboard) – in Firefox this works like a scroll wheel, preventing movement from keyboard to mouse
      • Back, Forward (located below spacebar) – go back and forward in your favorite web browser, or cycle through tabs in some programs
      • Quick launch keys – Keys for mail, search, browsing, volume, etc.
      • Favorite keys – Five customizable favorite keys to reduce movement from keyboard to mouse (assign to programs, folders, files, etc.)
  • Buy an ergonomic (trackball) mouse.
    • Wrist trouble often begins in the hand or wrist that handles the mouse.  A trackball mouse can limit motion of the wrist; thus, preventing injury.  At the very least, get a mouse that conforms to the natural resting position of your hand where the fingers lay naturally over the mouse buttons.  3M offers a vertical mouse, which seems to have some really good reviews, but I can’t personally vouch for this.
  • Eliminate unnecessary movement.  Any items frequently used should be available without having to move at the waist.  The mouse and keyboard should also be close together.
  • Take microbreaks every 15 minutes (microbreak = 30-60 second break involving no computer).
  • Take five to fifteen minute breaks every hour.  Take this time to stretch, or do something else that will rest your hands, wrists, and eyes.
  • Stretch once every hour.
  • Download and use Workrave, which will alert you to take microbreaks and rest breaks, and even offers suggestions on different exercises.
  • Use voice recognition software.  Windows 7 comes with Speech Recognition out-of-the-box, and it works great for the most part.  If I need a break, or just want to avoid using my hands and wrists, I’ll turn this feature on and let it work its magic.
  • Use a touchscreen monitor.  Right now, touchscreen monitors are pretty expensive ($550+ for 19″ LCD touchscreen monitor), but if you have the extra money lying around or really need it, they are available.  There are some conversion kits out there that will convert a regular monitor into a touchscreen, but I can’t say whether or not the quality is there.
  • Use automated scripts and macros.  Automated scripts can complete multiple actions at once (such as building an application from source), so you don’t have to.  Macros work off the same concept.

Please feel free to add your own suggestions, and links to any good resources on RSI prevention.  This is an extremely important topic, and ALL programmers need to take these things into account.  It can mean the difference between losing ability to use your hand, and having a high quality of life as an older person.

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