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I am 16 years old and I love to program and playing the piano. It's not uncommon that I'm bashing away on my mouse and keyboard all day long. I do not feel any pains doing so.

Yet I am still worried, because I often hear from people that they can never type for longer then 10 minutes again without getting severe pains. Given my two hobbies, programming and playing the piano that worries me a lot.

My current situation is this:

Should I be worrying about RSI/similar health issues? If yes, what can/should I do about it?

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closed as off topic by Yannis Rizos Feb 12 '12 at 12:56

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Type slowly, use laconic languages. Take breaks to enjoy non-computer aspect of life. Participate in actual sports or sports-like activities. Doing so will not make you a worse programmer and will help you live longer and have more children. –  Job Jun 26 '11 at 15:16
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Dude, you live in Amsterdam and yet you sit in front of a computer all day??? –  Job Jun 26 '11 at 15:23
    

9 Answers 9

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Four things you should be concerned about:

  1. Posture - how close to ideal all your body parts are positioned
  2. Force - how much force your body parts must endure
  3. Duration - how long you spend at a time working
  4. Frequency/Repetition - how many times you repeat the same action

Any or all of these things can contribute to repetitive strain injuries.

Some precautions you can take for each one:

  1. Posture - An ergonomic workstation and awareness of your posture:
    • Negative-tilt keyboard to reduce wrist extension (bending wrists up). I just bought a Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 for both home and work. The quality control on this keyboard is not great (I had to send one back for a replacement), but there doesn't seem to be anything comparable on the market for the price. (Perhaps the G15 you mentioned is also good--I'm not familiar with it.)
    • Keyboard should be at belly-button height (as you mentioned) to keep forearms parallel to the floor.
    • Mouse should be on the same surface as the keyboard, again to keep forearms parallel to floor. It can also help to become an ambidextrous mouser and mix up your input devices. I actually use a left-hand mouse at home, and a right-hand trackball (e.g., this Logitech one) at work. This has helped me quite a bit.
    • Mouse should have wrist rest to help minimize wrist extension.
    • Feet should rest comfortably on the floor to reduce pressure on your thighs and reduce back strain. If they don't, a footrest or raising up your chair and workstation may be necessary.
    • Top of monitor should be aligned with your eyes to reduce neck strain. You should not have to lean forward very often to read or view things on the screen.
    • Comfortable, multi-adjustable office chair - it's hard to tell from the picture of your office chair what adjustments it has. Almost all office chairs roll, swivel, and can be adjusted up and down. I'd also recommend one with a seat pan that can be tilted and a back rest that can be reclined to different angles, can be slid up/down for optimal lumbar support, and tilts a little as you lean forward and backward. Definitely test drive any chair your buy, or at least get one you can return if you don't like it. Armrests are optional, but should be adjustable up/down if you get them.
    • As for the piano, you don't have as many choices, but you can at least get the chair height right and make sure you maintain good hand position.
  2. Force - Type gently--don't bang on the keyboard.
  3. Duration - Take frequent breaks! I'm horrible about this when I'm programming, and that's one of the reason I've had some issues with RSIs. You may also need to force yourself to take days off from programming, although I know that's easier said than done.
  4. Frequency - Typing and piano playing are both repetitive tasks, and there's little that can be done about it.

A final note: Your best guide to whether you need to worry is how you feel. At the first sign of trouble, take action! None of the problems I've had came out of nowhere. They started with dull pain, numbness, or stiffness, and because I kept doing the same thing I was doing, they got worse. I was very lucky to avert anything permanent, but I know people who haven't been so lucky. You can have the perfect ergonomic workstation but still get injured if you spend too much time working in too short a period of time.

Hope that helps.

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+1 Some good info in there. I replaced my Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 with a Kinesis Freestyle, which turned out to be much better. I also replaced my mouse with an Evoluent Vertical Mouse 4. I often had wrist pain when using the mouse. I've had no wrist pain whatsoever since I started using that mouse. Posture I couldn't emphasize enough: For years I didn't pay attention to that, and now I'm paying dearly for it with chronic lower back pain - sometimes I can barely walk and only sit for a few minutes. –  MetalMikester Jun 25 '11 at 22:09
    
Also check out this free software: workrave.org It's annoying, but it reminds you to move around a little. It even has an option to display various exercises you can do. –  MetalMikester Jun 25 '11 at 22:10
    
+1 on the trackball suggestion. I also like the Logitech Cordless Optical TrackMan (logitech.com/en-us/mice-pointers/trackballs/devices/189). –  Matthew Flynn Aug 5 '11 at 16:32
    
What about standing desks? –  Malfist Aug 5 '11 at 16:37
    
@Malfist: I switched to a standing desk a few weeks ago and while it hurts different places at first (feet and legs mainly) it is definitely worth it. I went with a less permanent solution in that I grabbed an IKEA Lack coffee table and put it on my desk. When I want to sit I can move it out of the way easily. –  James P. Wright Aug 5 '11 at 17:09

Went from contemplating surgery to working every day without pain:

Conquering Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Other Repetitive Strain Injuries: A Self-Care Program http://www.amazon.com/Conquering-Carpal-Syndrome-Repetitive-Injuries/dp/1572240393

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Posture and smart warm-up exercises (on piano) are the best advice, but also consider:

  • I'm right-handed, but use the mouse with my left hand at work. I have no medical evidence but my hope is that it is less repetition for my right hand. (I also hope that it has some interesting brain stimulation, but I have no evidence to support this.)
  • In my experience, playing the piano helps any numbness/over-use from typing at a keyboard. However, I am an intermediate and not playing fast, technical passages.
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I have a G15 keyboard myself (first gen, oh yeah!), though I use either an MX518 or predecessor to DanM's trackball (ball is used by the fingers, instead of the thumb).

While the G15 may not be a nearly-zero-force Apple keyboard nor an ergonomic one, it's still not a bad keyboard, and it should be sensitive enough that you don't have to slam your fingers down on it to get it to type (if you do, I recommend disassembling and cleaning it). I find it's large enough and I use the numpad and home/end/etc keys enough that I get some good movement even while I'm just typing.

DanM said just about everything I'd recommend regarding posture. Though, I do prefer the top of my monitor to be a little higher than eye level (basically, when I'm sitting properly and looking straight ahead, my center of vision is about an inch or two into the viewing area of the screen). Also, if you don't have wrist rests for your mouse or keyboard, make sure to make a conscious effort to act as if you did. On both your mouse and keyboard, you should keep your wrists straight (but not stiff) and your hands high enough that your finger pads rest on the home keys with enough of a curl to them that you straighten to get to the next row up, and move slightly to get to the numbers. The overall position is probably like how you were taught to play piano.

As for exercises, anything that makes you move your arms and wrists differently than what you do at the keyboard will help you. If you spend all day every day doing certain motions, the muscles that aren't used start to atrophy, and your muscle strength and ligaments will distort and be uneven. This is rather subtle in the arms and wrists, but can still happen.

A more extreme example is a woman who wears high heals all day, every day. After a long time, the muscles and ligaments in her calves will shorten and it will actually hurt more to walk in flats or barefoot than in heals.

If baseball doesn't work your wrists enough, check out Yoga (Yoga's awesome, anyway, and probably wouldn't hurt to work into your daily routine, regardless), or even the wrist and arm movements taught in bellydancing (the wrist rotations are great for alleviating stress on the wrists, and the "snake arms" are a hell of a shoulder and arm workout).

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I have to preface this advice with proof.
I had carpal tunnel. It hurt like hell. Then I got into a car accident and sprained my wrist even worse. My doctor led me to find this.
I spent about 2 weeks doing those exercises and my sprained wrist was healed completely (about 4 weeks faster than it "should" have) AND my carpal tunnel has disappeared to.
That was 2 years ago. I do those stretches maybe once every 3 days and have never had a re-occurrence of carpal tunnel.
I have showed them to family members and friends with similar wrist problems. Every single one of them has been massively helped by doing the stretches (and keeping up with them).

They take about 2-5 minutes out of your day and will help you for the rest of your life.

WARNING!
At the beginning, some of them may HURT. Bad. I find that which one hurts is different for every person. Mainly that means the muscle being stretched REALLY needs it, but be careful that you don't overdo it. For me, it was the thumb one.

Learn them, pass them on, they are fantastic.

The other piece of advice I have is every 20-30 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 30 seconds. Your eyes will get worse as you get older, like all parts of your body they need exercise in variety. A great time to do this is when you have a problem you have to think over. Kick your chair back, and look at something 20 feet away (preferably out a window) and solve your problem. You just killed 2 birds with one stone. Poor birds, lucky you.

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No idea why this isn't getting ANY votes. Seriously folks, these wrist stretches have cured people of carpal tunnel. Try them, upvote so other people can try them! –  James P. Wright Aug 5 '11 at 17:07
    
I've had RSI for a good 8 months now, and have contemplated calling it quits. Between switching chairs, mouses, trackpads, adjustable desk, posture, none of it worked for me. I started these stretches 3 days ago, and now the pain is mostly gone. I'd upvote this a billion times if I could. –  khanh.tran.vinh Jun 24 at 3:57

You should not be worried ever about this issue, because that programmer's "RSI-like illness" is psychosomatic by nature. I.e. it is what you worry about, not a real damage to joints. Keyboards do not put enough strain on wrists — sledgehammers do.

I've been at keyboard since I turned four, and I play guitar for about ten years already. It's okay.

EDIT:

That's not my sole own opinion. See Wikipedia for more details.

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Talk to the hand. Specifically, the hand wracked with pain from too much mouse clicking and poor posture. –  jhocking Jun 25 '11 at 12:31
    
@jhocking: As if I don't click it every day. Click once more (sorry for the pain!): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  vines Jun 25 '11 at 12:35
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You're misinterpreting the Wikipedia article. Luckily your comment is overtly ridiculous and won't be taken seriously. –  Joe Coder Mar 3 '12 at 22:51
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No I also wanted to downvote the answer but it wouldn't let me. Psychosomatics are only one component and only for certain people. Not trying to be snarky, just thought it was extremely poor advice to say never be worried about posture, ergonomics, etc. –  Joe Coder Mar 4 '12 at 23:16
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Please someone with enough reputation down-vote this for me, please, I beg you. This answer is insulting. –  yms Sep 19 '12 at 19:17

If you joints are hurting you can repair them taking a natural supplement called "MSM" - or you can eat a lot of fresh vegetables (which contain the MSM). It is used by athletes and race horses since both put a lot of strain on their joints.

Or if you don't want to repair your joints, just don't use them as much so they don't need to be repaired. Take regular breaks and stretch (not pop!) your fingers. Cracking/poping your fingers is very bad for them!

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Don't be worried, but do everything to prevent it.

Talk with your piano teacher or a yoga teacher about stretching exercises for the hands, back, neck, shoulders and the legs.

Find a keyboard that lets you stretch out for the mouse as less as possible, best if you don't have to stretch for the mouse at all.

Take ten minute breaks after every hour or so where you don't touch the keyboard. Pounding away at the keyboard all day long can be a source of pride, but could turn into a source of pain as you grow older.

And, when the first signs of the pain start appearing, visit a doctor ASAP.

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Thanks for the advice, but I have no piano teacher. –  nightcracker Jun 25 '11 at 12:51

If sitting a lot can give you an RSI, exercising a bit in some regular way(daily, or four times a week, or neck/shoulder circuit after every 1 hr while sitting) can give you fitness to fight it as well.

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I baseball 3 times a week, at least 1.5 hours each. Does that suffice? –  nightcracker Jun 25 '11 at 12:36
    
I think so, as long as you keep it up. And I strongly suggest doing a bit (3-5 minute) neck/shoulder circuit every day, at any time.. mostly its stiffness accumulated over time that leads to RSI (my opinion). use Google for some exercise images/videos. For example, see des.umd.edu/os/erg/neck.html. Dont use too much force, or speed, though. –  KK. Jun 25 '11 at 12:42

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