In the mousetrap;Hang-ups;Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
A bag of frozen peas stuck on your shoulder is cold comfort once you've got RSI. Especially when you earn your living at the keyboard

Being a freelance writer is difficult enough without having a kilo of frozen veg balanced like a surreal parrot on your right shoulder. A shirt can hold it in place, but any sudden movement and it slithers down to the small of your back where it can do nothing to relieve a pain in the upper arm and neck. This will tend to happen if, like me, you previously basted the upper half of your torso in generous lashings of muscle rub. It doesn't do as much to relieve my aching as the attractive packaging promised, but the distinctive smell ensures that any member of the family foolish enough to stand downwind of me is reminded that I have fallen victim to repetitive strain injury.

Before you bombard me with get-well cards and baskets of fruit, I should add that my doctor says I am lucky. Huh! I am only suffering from one of its milder manifestations: that the symptoms will clear - as long as I "lay off the computer for a while". That's like asking a lumberjack to keep away from trees, or a teacher to stop marking or a bank manager not to nag about an overdraft. And that's exactly what mine will do if I don't sit at the keyboard and process my daily quota of words.

It isn't only writers who earn their living at a computer. A growing number spend their working days using ICT and must face up to the fact that a bad case of RSI could easily develop into an equally painful P45. Doctors reported 150,000 new cases in Britain last year; 5.5 million working days were lost because of it. The TUC is probably not exaggerating when it says that RSI has already "reachedepidemic proportions".

I know that this is the point where the majority of Online's regular readers will hastily skip to another page. People interested in computers are not interested in RSI. If you are a victim, the last thing you want to do is read about it. And, if you are not, you have already persuaded yourself that it's never going to happen to you. Think again.

Your PC might be fine-tuned for the digital thrills and spills of the new millennium. But your body, unfortunately, is not. If it had arrived with a user manual, you would know that it was specifically designed to lope along the open plain, to pursue wild boars, to swim in mountain streams and other equally jolly pursuits. Don't be surprised then if it develops some disturbing faults if left for too long slumped in front of a computer.

Each time you engage in an unnatural physical movement - pressing keys or clicking a mouse, for instance - you cause micro-injuries to muscles, ligaments, joints or whatever bits of gristle happen to be involved. Each action is harmless in itself, but the cumulative effect over years can cause irreparable damage.

And just because you don't spend the entire day in front of the computer, don't feel that you're immune. These injuries "develop slowly over time", according to Don Sellars, the author of Zap!, an excellent guide to the potential dangers of ICT. "Even light strokers and short stinters can eventually develop them".

The list of disorders that can affect the hapless user is as long as my sore arm. Try these for starters: carpal tunnel syndrome, cumulative trauma disorder, double crush syndrome, rotator cuff tendinitis, tenosynovitis, epicondylitis, and De Quervain's Disease. Just to read them should be enough to make you wince. It might even persuade you to do what you can to save yourself from coming a cropper.

Essentially, you must treat your computer with the same wary respect as you would a chainsaw. Find out how to use it properly. I'm embarrassed to admit that, despite earning my living by typing, I've never had the common sense to learn how to type. I keep thumbs and seven fingers neatly tucked away in a white-knuckled fist. I use the remaining finger as an Exocet, dive-bombing unsuspecting keys. I can feel the impact of each hit reverberating up my arm.

am going to mend my ways. I have installed Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. As well as the tutorials, the latest version contains background music and 25 minutes of video which illustrate how to prevent the computer from inflicting grievous bodily harm. I've also discovered the miracle of Mousestrokes - a set of keyboard commands, available in Windows, which allow you to move the cursor, scroll, click on menus and suchlike without having to lay a finger on the mouse. In fact I have consigned my mouse to the attic with the bullworker, the national curriculum ring binders, the Inland Revenue's guide to self assessment, The Brief History of Time and other items which, over the years, have caused me unnecessary pain and suffering.

But the most important thing is to alter how you sit in relation to the PC. To be absolutely safe, you should be in a comfortable armchair in a warm, gently-lit room - and the computer should be positioned at the bottom of the garden in a shallow grave.

Failing that, follow the work safety advice from Brussels. Your chair should have an adjustable backrest to support the small of your back so that you are sitting upright with your feet planted firmly on the floor. If it has armrests, all the better as they will help to keep your upper arms at 90 degrees and your forearms virtually horizontal. Your wrists should rest on the desk. You should place yourself so that you're 50-90cm from the screen, viewing it at a downwards angle of about 20 degrees. Make sure there's adequate illumination and no screen glare.

I know it's a bit of a chore. But it will be worth it, if only to save yourself from the indignity of having to share your shirt with a kilo of minted petit pois.

arnoldevans@virgin.netHealth and safety, pages 18-19 * HELP AND CONTACTS

RSI Association 01895 431134 useful websites: http:www.engr.uni.edueeeeshopRSI.html http:dragon.arcadiau.carobrsirsi.html Zap! by Don Sellers, Peachpit Press, pound;12.50, from Computer Manuals0121 706 6000 Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing (pound;29.99) Mindscape 0171 794 2302 Body Action Campaign (0181 682 2154)a theatre-in-education approach to teaching children how to avoid RSI

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