It’s called repetitive stress injury for a reason: because it’s caused by motions you repeat, sometimes hundreds of times across a short space of time.
You can ease an existing condition, or help prevent a new one, by making sensible changes in your workplace setup. That’s only a partial solution. Think about what you do, and figure out how you can reduce those repetitive motions. Type less – do more.
Mac OS X, along with many popular applications, offers a selection of built-in tools that simplify tasks. You can also buy software to do this for you. Learning system and application shortcuts can minimise your need to engage in repetitive actions.
Not every shortcut is ideal – it should never be more harmful than the action it replaces.
For example, stretching your fingers to press three keys at the same time may put more stress on your fingers and tendons than simply using the mouse.
Increased awareness of RSI in recent years has generated a flood of claimed ergonomic devices that may reduce the risk of injury.
Unfortunately, determining whether a product lives up to its claims for you is difficult without actually using it. It’s a personal thing: be prepared to return products that don’t work for you. You may need to experiment to find the right hardware solution.
Automate common tasks Replacing repetitive multistep procedures with automated sequences can be a huge benefit, and many applications come with automation features built in.
For instance, Adobe Photoshop’s actions let you trigger certain tasks, such as resizing, rotating, and saving an image, with a single mouse click. Photoshop comes with several actions (File > Automate > Batch), and hundreds more are available for free from Adobe’s Studio Exchange, www.adobe.com/cfusion/exchange).
Mac OS X ships with Automator. This lets you program complex operations called workflows by dragging actions into a flowchart-like window. So you can create workflows to mail certain items in the Finder or resize a group of images.
While Automator’s workflows are limited to stringing together predefined steps (such as retrieving the contents of a folder), Startly Technologies’ QuicKeys X3 ($80 [£48], www.startly.com) offers more flexibility: it can automate just about any action, including typing, mouse clicks, and system operations.
To use QuicKeys, you have to break up a job into a series of distinct steps (click on a button, wait until a window disappears, and so on), but it’s worth the effort for oft-repeated actions.
Try shortcuts Try to use those built-in shortcuts for common commands. To find the shortcuts available for an application, use the Help menu.
Many applications, including Microsoft Word, let you customise keyboard shortcuts. And if you’re using Mac OS X 10.3 or later, you can set keyboard shortcuts for any menu command in most applications.
So you don’t have to remember every shortcut try a keyboard skin, such as those from xskn (from £29.95, xskn.com). These thin silicone covers have shortcuts printed on them and are available for Photoshop, Final Cut and more.
You can also reduce typing by using text expanders, which let you enter blocks of text with a few keystrokes. This capability is built into Word, in AutoText, but you can add it to other programs. Third-party text expanders such as Riccardo Ettore’s TypeIt4Me ($27 [£16], www.typeit4me.com) and SmileOnMyMac’s TextExpander ($30 [£18], www.smileonmymac.com) let you set up abbreviations for frequently used phrases in any application.
Use your voice MacSpeech offers Dictate, an effective speech-recognition solution for using your voice instead of your fingers to type (£179, www.macspeech.co.uk.)
Even if you don’t invest in Dictate, you can still voice-control your Mac, using OS X’s built-in speech recognition. For example, you can command your Mac to hide the current application, switch to another application, or even create a new folder, all without touching the mouse.
Use the Speech preference pane to configure which voice-command sets to activate. In this pane, enter the Commands option in order to set up your speakable commands. You can also set the system up to attempt to match what you say to a target phrase, for example, the command to tell the time could also be launched if you say, “What’s the time?”.
Take frequent breaks In today’s deadline-driven world, it’s far too easy to ignore this tip, but you do so at your peril. It has been suggested that to prevent RSI you should take a five-minute break after every 20 or 30 minutes of continuous activity. If you’re suffering from RSI you should clearly take more frequent and longer breaks. You should stop what you’re doing a few times an hour, relax, take a few deep breaths, and close your eyes or look off into the distance. Better yet, get up and walk around to stretch.
If you can’t remember to put your work aside on your own, software such as MacBreakZ ($25 [£15], www.publicspace.net) or Niche Software’s WorkPace ($74 [£45] bit.ly/161l7q) will remind you to take a break and show you exercises that you can perform at your desk.
You can adjust the length of the pauses and the interval between breaks; you can even make the reminder window take over your screen, so you’re forced to stop working.
Although it doesn’t include exercise tips, a free program called AntiRSI (www.freemacware.com/antirsi) also helps you take periodic breaks. All three applications furnish longer breaks and one-minute ‘microbreaks’.
If you think you might have RSI, don’t suffer in silence. Take these steps to get the help you need to prevent the injury getting worse.
1. Seek attention - Never work through the pain – this will aggravate it. Visit your employer’s human resources department and get your concerns on file. Employers must address such complaints, including provision of new equipment and allowing leave for recovery and medical care.
2. Seek knowledge - Get informed. Good books include:
- Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User’s Guide (Wiley, 1994), by experts Dr Emil Pascarelli and Deborah Quilter. This title is the world’s most well-read RSI guide.
- It’s Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, RSI Theory & Therapy for Computer Professionals by Suparna Damany, Jack Bellis and Martin Cherniack.
- Complete Guide to Repetitive Strain Injury: What You Need to Know about RSI and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Wiley, 2004), by Dr Emil Pascarelli.
3. Seek solutions - Get online and look for help, start with these:
- The Typing Injury FAQ is a huge resource on prevention and treatment of RSI, www.tifaq.com.
- RSI Awareness details different forms, treatments and advice, www.rsi.org.uk.
- RSI-UK is an online support group for sufferers, www.rsi-uk.org.uk.
4. Seek medical help - Don’t wait until the pain becomes so bad that you need to take time off work and can’t sleep at night. Don’t wait until you develop carpal tunnel syndrome and need surgery to relieve the pain. Don’t wait until your condition is so bad you’ll never fully recover. Visit your GP, immediately.