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RSI and Discomfort

August 22, 2003

I can’t sit still, and not because I’m excited or restless. I’m uncomfortable.

The human body wasn’t built for the long hours the average white-collar worker puts in front of the screen daily. A lot of ink has been devoted to the subject of keeping yourself healthy while in front of the computer, so here are a few personal notes on the subject.

RSI, or Repetitive Strain Injury, is something you’re most likely familiar with. Long periods of typing or even using the mouse cause sore tendons, and without proper care your hands and arms can become almost unusable.

The funny thing is that it comes and goes. I’ve seen reports that suggest it may not be permanent. My own experience has been that as long as I’m not over-doing it and pushing myself beyond a comfort limit, the pain will ease over time. Long stretches of intense work obviously further the problem, but a few moments of rest after a marathon-length e-mail and the odd break away from my desk throughout the day go a long way toward healthy joints.

But a recent problem that I’d never encountered prior is, for lack of a better term, numb ass syndrome. I just can’t sit in one spot for long. I go back and forth between crossing my legs, placing my feet flat on the floor, hunching over, leaning back, and just about everything in between. No positions are comfortable. The only remedy is a good long walk.

It didn’t used to be like this. I’ve recently changed some habits, and the unfortunate result is that I end up stuck in a chair for far longer, and with far fewer breaks. My saving grace used to be half-hour long excursions to get lunch around the noon hour. I’ve been taking fewer of those, and I’m paying for it.

Some quick Googling reveals the following tips for relief of numb ass. As well as these, I’ll be making a point of getting out around noon of every day for at least a few minutes. We’ll see how this goes.

  • Avoid sitting for prolonged periods of time, as this causes postural strain.
  • Take frequent breaks to stand up and stretch.
  • Place both feet flat on the floor when sitting.
  • Avoid crossing your legs - this habit can lead to an imbalance in the pelvis.
  • Sit back on the chair. It is very important that you give your back the proper support.
  • Adjust your chair so that your knee is slightly higher than your hip. If your chair is not adjustable you will need a footrest.
  • Don’t sit in a chair that is too large, too high or too low.
  • Avoid leaning forward with your back arched. Work toward not being a slouch.

Reader Comments

tomjleeds says:
August 22, 01h

While recently having my hair done in a slightly ‘controversial way’, I found I was leaning forward with my soldiers hunched for 3 and a half hours straight. After around an hour and a half I realised that I couldn’t feel my arse! No amount of wriggling or squirming could bring it back to life!

A horrible feeling, I can totally sympathise!

Nic says:
August 22, 01h

Guys! Guys! Come on, numb ass, dead legs??? Allow me to have *no* sympathy for you After 8 years in a wheelchair, well, you get used to that kind of thing

That said, before landing in the chair, I would use a “kneel-sit” chair that made a world of difference. It was a wonder on the back. It *looks* weird, but it extremely comfortable, even for long periods.

I’ve not purchased from them, but they are one of the first link I found about it.

The alternative you might want to do is to get a cushion like the one I’m sitting on to avoid pressure sores. The one I have was nearly US$500, and it is by Roho.

That said, frequent breaks are likely the best way to avoid a lot of that stuff :-)


August 22, 01h

I have encountered similar problems myself. I sporadically suffer from ‘Shea Numb Ass’ (as it will now be called), various wrist and hand aches (which I believe are also associated with driving 140 miles per day) and, perhaps more seriously, a tendency to get just a little nauseous if I view the screen for too long.

The latter ailment is a recent thing. I used to be able to play Quake for hours on end without difficulty, but now I find myself getting a little queasy over nothing more than simple web use. Perhaps it is related to scrolling.

Dave S. says:
August 22, 01h

Heh, I knew you’d pipe up, Nic. You’re obviously allowed to get away with calling the rest of us a bunch of babies.

I thought I’d get out for a nice walk today, but I ended up going for sushi and sitting the whole time. Oddly enough, the lowered wooden bench was far more comfortable than my plush office chair. I’ve lowered my chair some since coming back, maybe that will make a difference.

jon says:
August 22, 02h

i guess i don’t experience the butt pains ‘cos i got a Black Man Booty :) but man is my mouse hand in constant pain (tendonitis). i’ve been wearing an arm brace for a few months now to ease it. like you mentioned; the best thing is taking a break.

as a young buck i never thought this would happen to me, but the years of djing and computering have caught up with me.

for hands, a physical therapist friend gave me a little advice–of course take breaks, but try to do a little hand exercise, where the motion is like, grab your wrist with your fingers (same hand), ball your fist, then “half-ball” it (tips of fingers curved, not your knuckles), then a full stretch. do this for a few minutes, slowly.

and get a natural keyboard! my laptop’s kicking my butt, and it’s always beautiful to come home to my natural keyboard. anyone know of ergonomic keyboards for laptops?!


Dr. Nate says:
August 22, 03h

I can offer you one quick solution Dave, and it’s really simple: go see a Chiropractor. I’m one myself, and I treat many patients with the exact symptoms you are describing, and get great results. Beyond the simplicity of that, remember the following tip (for guys): do NOT sit on your wallet! This is one thing I see all the time, and it’s terrible for your pelvis and lower back. If you are getting symptoms like you describe, you are definitely sitting much longer than you should at one time. Just stand up and stretch your lower back by putting your hands on those little round bumps in the lower back, and stretch by leaning backwards into your hands. That will help a lot. Honestly though, a trip or two to the chiropractor will be your best bet. Please e-mail me with any questions about chiropractic, and I’ll be happy to answer them. Take Care.

MikeyC says:
August 22, 03h

“my mouse hand in constant pain (tendonitis). iíve been wearing an arm brace for a few months now to ease it.”

When I first started working fulltime (a bit over two years ago) the first couple of months my ‘mouse hand’ really ached from RSI. 7 hours of work + 4 or 5 hours of home use will do that. But it eventually disappeared which I find peculiar as I’m not doing anything different…can your body adapt to RSI?

My big problem, at the moment, is that I just can’t stare at a monitor for hours-on-end, like I used to, before my eyes balls really start to ache. I’ve taken to doing a stretching exercise where I close my eyes and “look” to the far left and then to the far right a few times then up and down and this seems to help a bit. I read somewhere about the 20-20-20 rule: after every 20 minutes of staring at a screen you should focus on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds so that your eye muscles don’t atrophy or something…

Paul G says:
August 22, 03h

Taking a break helps, but ever since I had a nasty bout with sciatica a few years ago, I’ve been swimming laps after work to get exercise and stretch out. Let me tell you, it goes a long way towards mitigating the ~9 hours a day I spend in front of a damn computer. I can’t recommend it enough.

MikeyC says:
August 22, 03h

“do NOT sit on your wallet! This is one thing I see all the time, and it’s terrible for your pelvis and lower back.”

Hahaha…remember that episode of Seinfeld where George has that gigantic wallet that he keeps in his back pocket and it’s completely screwing up his back. It’s so big that when he’s sitting down he’s actually tilting to one side so he takes a handful of hard candies and puts them in the other back pocket to balance himself out. Then he sees a free guitar lesson coupon and puts it in and the wallet just can’t take anymore abuse and explodes. That was a hilarious episode and, as it turns out, an important life lesson ;)

Nic says:
August 22, 04h

jon, current physical therapy “on the edge” recommend exercise over bracing for tendonitis/RSI/wrist issues.

Many people have their monitors way too low. The top of the screen should be at about eye level, sitting comfortably straight.

Dave, your mention of sushi made me hungry. I’m doomed for frozen pot pie nuked :-/

Infernal machines…

patricia says:
August 22, 08h

i’ve recently noticed that i’m suffering from NAS. It’s especially noticeable when I get in my car to go home. I guess it’s from moving from my regular desk chair to the car seat, the difference in seat styles makes the discomfort more noticeable. Who knows?

I try to stand up as much as possible, choosing to stay standing during informal meetings. Makes people nervous for some reason, but when I tell them I’m tired of sitting they relax. I also will kneel backwards in a chair, but only when I’m with my boss. She thinks it’s a weird position to take, but we’ve been working together for so long that she’s used to my little quirks. Anything really to stay off my butt. :D

Franz says:
August 22, 11h

Aint it funny that the tips for proper sitting are about the same they teached us in school, long time ago? But we tend to forget so easily….

Alex says:
August 22, 12h

-Avoid leaning forward with your back arched. Work toward not being a slouch.

Well, I’m working on it… ;)

Jai says:
August 22, 12h

“The only remedy is a good long walk.”…

I bet you look like one of those guys from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with the silly walks) if you try to do this with a sleeping buttocks.

Michael says:
August 23, 01h

The comment about screen height is pertinent. This is likely to become more of a problem for many of us now laptops are overtaking desktops.

I think few people have given enough thought to such problems.

Moreover, as no human activity can be wholly “physical” or wholly “mental”, excessive time at the screen is likely to put one in an overall lowered state.

I think all of Dave’s advice is good. But there are no easy solutions. And simply trying “sitting up straight” often means introducing *different* postural tensions, whereas when everything is in balance one simply naturally sits upright without tension, as small children do:

Taking frequent breaks is probably the best advice.

kate says:
August 23, 06h

Dave, why don’t you try using an exercise ball instead of a chair? It will help with posture & core strength, and I would guess that the small movements you would get with the ball might alleviate some of your numb-bum issues.

Davor says:
August 23, 08h

Desk Stretches Howto

neil says:
August 24, 03h

I’ve seen me coming of the PC after a marathon session looking a lot like ‘Golum’, but not as healthy.
I used to play online in a UT clan. There was a chap in an opposing team who was truely sublime, really, really good. He played for hours at a time to hone his skills. After seeing a photo of him on his clan webby, his tortured, palid frame encouraged me to take some exercise in the sunshine now and then.
Good post Dave, I think we could all do with stepping back from PC land now and then.

jon says:
August 24, 05h

thanks for the words, Nic. I wear my brace when sleeping, or flying on the plane, never while on the computer–the type of brace i hand doesn’t allow it.

laptops definitely are a pain, and as a consultant, when we’re onsite, that’s all we have to work with. for a while i had my laptop propped on an unused desktop computer chassis, but my coworkers didn’t appreciate it (we share a few tables in a room).

i think i may invest in a docking station, although portability is really crummy.


August 24, 08h

In the pre-Web days my computer BBS was my consuming hobby. I spent hours every day fiddling and twiddling with it. Unthinkingly I kept my feet flat on the floor for hours at a time. A very painful small red spot developed on my foot. Going to visit a doctor I found myself quickly hustled into the hospital. In holding my legs still and applying so much pressure on my legs the blog in the legs stagnated, giving me a condition known as venous stasis.

That combined with severe RSI got me to never let myself spend too much time at the keyboard without getting up and walking around and stretching.

August 25, 02h

“Dave, why donít you try using an exercise ball instead of a chair….”

My wife did this with our computer at home. I’m not sure if I like it or not, since at home I really don’t feel like being on the computer a lot after being on one at work all day long. I’ll say it makes you balance and you sure want to get up and take a break soon too.

Rik Abel says:
August 25, 05h

I’m blessed with being a fidgeter with a short attention span, so I rarely spend more than half an hour at a stretch at my computer (apart from those rare occassions when I am in ‘the zone’ and realise that seven hours have elapsed…) and I have not had any RSI or sore back problems. So I advise getting up every thirty minutes to have a two minute break, wander around and bug your office colleagues, make tea, etc. Works for me! Oh, and don’t work so hard…

August 26, 08h

A Couple Comments - I too have suffered from RSI in my wrists. What has worked for both me and my wife - start taking glucosamine and chondroitin, along withB12. Also, every night, take a 5lb hand weight and exercise your wrist muscles. In a sitting position on the couch or whatever, rest you wrist on your knee - palm up. Hold your wrist down on you knee slightly and do curls with your hand, flexing the muscles in your wrist. Do a set of 12 or so for each side of your wrist (top, bottom, left, right), always curling up in motion. This will strengthen the muscles in your forearm and make your wrists stronger, alleviating the numbness. If 5lb weights are too much, start with a 2lb and work your way up.

Ass numbness: do yourself a favor - go buy a Herman Miller Aeron chair [ ]. Non-ass-numbing comfort! I have one at work - wish I had one at home but can’t due to those busted-ass cats I have. Yeah - they are kind of expensive but believe me, they are worth the investment.

Lauren says:
August 26, 10h

Dave, I second Dr. Nate’s comment about finding a good chiropractor. I developed an RSI about a year and a half ago that scared me so badly I thought I might have to change careers. But at the urging of a couple of good friends I caved in and visited a chiropractor, and she’s made a world of difference. (I was actually both terrified and skeptical of chiropractic medicine before meeting my current chiroproactor, BTW.) I’m in Vancouver, too, and I see Dr. Beverley Steinhoff at Broadway at Yew Chiropractic – and I would recommend her very highly. Thanks to her I only get the occasional twinge now, and when I do I usually take it as a sign to go in for a check-up. :) Email me if you want more info…

August 26, 10h

If you need help remembering to take typing/rest breaks, go install WorkRave: (Works on Linux and Windows, and a few other platforms.) It’s a nice, Free program that enforces typing and rest breaks. I’ve been using it at work for a few months now, and I’ve noticed a dramatic drop in wrist pain. Now I just need to fix my desk setup so I can get rid of my sore back…

Andy says:
August 26, 11h

A couple years ago, I was finding the same. I was in the middle of a somewhat well paying contract and was sure I wished to continue on the computer, and so researched and invested in ways to put RSI behind me. Two things did it: A good chair and a good data entry device. The chair I use is a Herman Miller Aeron. It’s fantastic for long hauls. Well supporting and cool. The data entry device (note I didn’t say keyboard ;) is a set of Datahand Professional IIs. The Datahands are a non-traditional integrated split keyboard and mouse, where each finger has to move the minimum distance to reach the keys. The mouse is integrated, removing leaning and pressure associated with other mice (and trackballs). With the appropriate accessory, the Datahands can be mounted on the arms of the Aeron, providing a work environment where the upper body is continually neutral, even with ones feet up on the desk. The arms are straight, no hunching over keyboard, no leaning or moving towards the mouse. It’s FANTASTIC. Best setup I’ve ever used. However, it doesn’t come cheap, both in price and time spent backspacing. The Aeron is US$700 and the Datahands US$1000, and the datahands may take a month or two to get to %85 of flat keyboard efficiency. If you indend on keeping on doing what you’re doing (very well, btw ;), you may want to give a similar setup a try. Email me if you have any questions.


Eric says:
August 29, 10h

Aeron’s rock the house, and are worth the investment. I’ve never had problems (yet), but I think that’s partly due to the fact that I have, for some strange reason, acquired different poses for different tasks. I sit differently when coding versus reading web pages versus reading email versus posting message.

For example, my “posting message pose” is sitting on the edge of my chair, legs tucked under me, heels not touching the ground, and wrists up in the air. My coding pose is leaning way back, toes in the air with legs straight out, elbow on the desk.

I have no idea how this started or if its even a good idea, but I figured its probably not a bad thing, and I have so far avoided NAS.