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Obey the Sheep

Originally this was going to be a review of the Workrave software, but I saw an RSI specialist today, and what he told me today goes along well with what I was going to write, so I now present my condensed, summarized report of how you, too, can help prevent RSI (with a little assistance from the Sheep). Workrave is perhaps the single most important piece of software I've installed on my computer in the past three years, as I have now started to develop RSI. To understand how and why it's so useful, let me first try to relate what my specialist told me about RSI (note that this does not apply to carpal-tunnel, which I now little about).

RSI is a bit of a misnomer; it's not a repetitive stress injury as much as it is a static stress injury. While you are typing, your muscles must constrict in order to hold your arms, neck, and head in place. Over time, this causes your muscles to form more fibrous tissue (i.e. tendon-y tissue), which help induce pain. My specialist had me feel my triceps as an example of what good muscle tissue is: it's soft and all of the same consistency. He then had me feel my forearms muscles, which felt like little bands of tendons.

Each day you cause damage to your muscles that your body must heal; if you only heal 99% of that damage each day, then over time you will accumulate more and more damage until you are in pain -- RSI. This view of RSI offers three avenues of treatment: decreasing the amount of daily damage, increasing your repair rate, and repairing the damage manually.

I said this was originally going to be a review of Workrave, so here is where the Sheep comes in (decreasing the daily damage). Workrave is a great piece of software that is a glorified timer, with a sheep that pops up to tell you when to take micro-breaks (every three minutes) as well as when to take rest breaks (every forty-five minutes). It even has suggested exercises and stretches that pop-up during the breaks. These breaks are important, as the amount of time your muscles spend in static contraction is related to the amount of damage you are doing. If you take three seconds every three minutes to put your arms down and shake them a bit, you go a long ways towards decreasing the amount of damage. Every ten to fifteen minutes you should also tilt your head back to break some of the static contraction in your neck and back. Workrave actually has thirty-second micro-breaks, but what my specialist said seems to indicate that you can take much shorter breaks. When I first started using Workrave, the most frustrating thing was learning to listen to the Sheep and actually take a break from typing; knowing that I only need to take three-second instead of thirty-second micro-breaks will really help me obey the sheep better.

To improve your repair rate, there are three basic things: water, minerals, and exercise. Water is important to muscles, and we often don't feel thirsty until we are already dehyrated, so it's important to drink plenty. It's also important to take good vitamin/mineral supplements (my specialist said to stay away from Centrum and other supermarket brands). Aerobic exercise will boost the body's metabolism, which will also help it heal.

As for repairing the damage manually, that involves a lot of stretching (2-4 times per day). The fibrous muscle tissue causes your muscles to shorten; the goal of the stretching is to lengthen the muscles once more. There are just a few basic stretches that my specialist gave me to do, and a lot of these can be easily done during one of the micro-breaks or rest breaks that the Sheep indicates. You need to stretch your wrists as well as your shoulder muscles. My specialist is also having me focus on my pecs, as they can impinge on both the blood and nerves running into the arms.

Comments (6)

jay:

you don't naturally take breaks every three minutes? listen, mr. overachiever, we don't need any heroes around here!

(then again, maybe i do what i do because i got tired of wearing a wrist brace for months on end.)

so what are some good vitamin/minerals brands if supermarket ones aren't good enough?

naturally, these last few weeks have highlighted to me the risks i run of RSI in the future. :P

hmmm.... i guess they don't expect *real* programmers to use macs or something (brandists), they don't have a version of their software for macs.

i want a sheep. :)

bp:

Really seems like it would be a pretty easy Konfabulator widget. Anyone seen one?

kwc:

He said that if you got to any health food store or whole foods and buy them there, they should be fine. It's the mass market ones that are bad. He said, if I'm uncertain, read the ingredients and look for ones that end with a predominence of "-ate" rather than "-ide", though I tried this with Centrum label and it wasn't too useful.

Have just installed WorkRave as my shoulders are very crunchy. I'm finding the absence of basic help files a bit confusing - is the daily limit the number of hours to work in a day?
Your advice re the mini breaks is really helpful.
Re vitamins, my chiropractor echos your specialist's advice re cheap supplies and says Solgar are reliable.
But it's helpful to know what precisely your own particular body needs. I don't know why it works, but I taught myself to dowse from a book using a simple pendent necklace and it seems to work for indicating what is good or bad for you - and if something indicates it's neutral, that's not great because the things you ingest should be good for you.

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