You may recall that a while ago I advocated a piece of software designed to prevent RSI etc by timing your use of the computer and making you take breaks. The software was Workrave and I have been using it ever since, unlike some 😉

I was taking 15 second breaks every 10 mins and a 5 minute break every hour. Unfortunately, however, it seems this is not enough. I’ve had problems for the past few months, always occasional, with shooting pains from my wrists all the way up to my elbows, as well as a strange feeling in my left hand in the 3rd and 4th fingers. Although painful, the episodes didn’t usually last long enough for me to do anything about it, other than take a little time away from the keyboard.

Things got worse, however, and I went to see the Occupational Health guys at work. To their credit they got me to see a doctor pretty quickly and after a few quick tests he had a verdict: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in my left arm (which was causing the weird numbness and pain in my hand) and Upper Limb Disorder (which seems to me to be the same as good old RSI) in both arms.

So what does this mean? Luckily both are in the early stages and the use of Workrave, the strength I have in my upper body from working out and my youth are all already helping it not progress further at a rapid rate. Still I’m going to take this seriously, since I really don’t want my computing career over before it really begins!!

The doc gave me a brace to wear at night on the CTS affected arm and work are being very accommodating in terms of changing my peripherals so they don’t require as much wrist movement. I already had a gel thingey to help my wrists stay flat when typing and I’ve just acquired a wireless optical trackball (luckily with a scroll wheel, else my likelihood of using it would soon approach 0) which will apparently help a lot since I can use it without moving my wrist. He’s also told me to cut down the working before a break to 40 mins and to double the break length. I’m also to try to limit the amount of time I spend at the computer to a given maximum and to spread my meetings out during the day so I use them to full (rest) advantage.

I blogged this for two reasons … firstly, I think its important for people to realise that there’s a whole generation coming through to working age now that are highly susceptible to this sort of problem. I’ve been using computers since I was about 8 years old — I’m only 21 now, but that’s still plenty of time to permanently injure yourself. I imagine it will be worse for kids who starting using the PC before they went to school (and there are plenty of them around). Another interesting thought here is that soon we’ll see lawsuits against schools and universities, because they are so often trying to cram so many computers into a small space that the ergonomics of the situation are completely shot. I reckon it will just need a few strategic bits of legal action for that all to change, but by the time it does it will likely be too late for many. And what of laptop manufacturers … are they culpable too? I will resist going off on this tangent, but I would love to hear if this kind of thing has already started happening…

Secondly, I’m very interested by the predicament this highlights in terms of Human Computer Interaction. What if interacting with your computer is going to disable you? What do you do then? How does the industry adapt interaction methods to make it so people aren’t in so much danger of hurting themselves? Elly recently wrote about how she’d given up her mouse completely in favour of her tablet. This is one option (my trackball is a similar escape route), but is there a bigger problem here … that perhaps the WIMP standard that we are all accustomed to is somehow basely flawed?

Do we need to change the way we interact with computers or, more interestingly, will we change in order to interact with them better? Will our children grow up with strangely strong wrists and tendons accustomed to frequent tiny movements? Innovation vs evolution — what do you think? 😉