The Carpal Tunnel Survival Guide

My index finger went completely numb. You could poke it and I wouldn't feel a thing. That was the flashing red neon sign telling me something was wrong. The culprit: laptops. My esteemed partner in crime, Patrick Miller, recently wrote about what bugs him about laptops. Now it's my turn, but I want to share a personal tale with you. Along the way, I'll tell you how to avoid the same mistakes I made.

Carpal Tunnel: A Loathe Story

Carpal tunnel syndrome and RSI--the bane of the modern computer user--hit home for me because I spent too much time using poorly placed touchpads and seriously scrunched keyboards. But I've gleaned a thing or two about ergonomics as a result. My misery is your chance to learn.

Go on, hold your hand near a laptop's touchpad and mouse buttons. Every time you start tapping out a document on the bus, at the coffee shop, or on that flight to the big meeting you're likely forcing your hands into uncomfortable positions. As my doc told me the other day: "Don't buy a laptop based only upon what you plan to do with it. First and foremost, make sure that it conforms to your body's needs--not the other way around."

Dr. Thomas M. Marsella, MD, with the Occupational Health Services department of the Physician Foundation at California Pacific Medical Center has a couple other suggestions.

Take Breaks

"Micro breaks are the surest way to prevent repetitive strain injuries. They let the body recover from activities."
--Thomas Marsella

Besides going neo-luddite and banning all technology, the next best thing to do is take a break. Get up. Go soak up some of that sunlight you keep reading about.

The problem is, it's easy to get hypnotized by some riveting spreadsheet. I'm using Break Reminder, a countdown timer, to snap myself back to reality. I have the software configured to force me to take a 3-minute break every 30 minutes--by locking the keyboard. You can adjust the program however you see fit, but just make sure it doesn't interfere with your Web-based conference calls (whoops). My physical therapist advises me that people shouldn't use a computer in the same position for more than an hour at a time without a break.

Another approach is to set a timer on something you carry with you everywhere--your cell phone, for example.

Do Some Stretches

"We see younger people coming in with hand problems these days. Usually, as the body ages, people aren't as flexible and able to recover. So don't forget to exercise."
--Thomas Marsella

Basic exercise advice is easy to find. At work, ask HR. Online, you'll find plenty of experts ready to provide their input. Now it's my turn.

But first, a bit of advice: If any exercise starts to hurt, stop. See an expert to check you're doing the exercise correctly, and to make sure you don't have a more serious problem.

Stretch 1: Evil Genius. Extending your fingers and placing your palms together in front of you, put your elbows out and gently press your hands together. For the proper form, think somewhere between "Zen prayer" and "evil genius."

Stretch 2: Hands Down. First, extend your left arm and hold your left hand parallel to the floor, palm down. Take your right hand and place it across your left one. The four fingers of your right hand should be on the back of your left hand, with your right thumb pressed against your left palm's base. Gently push your left hand downward. Now, switch hands.

Stretch 3: Double Chin. The proper sitting posture at your desk is an "L" shape. Your ears should be over your shoulders. If you're leaning into your computer, you're straining your neck. To ease that, start with your head craned slightly up and forward. Now, slowly bring your head toward your chest and tuck a little to make a double chin.

Those are just a few basics; be sure to consult a real expert to learn the right exercises for you.

I'm out of choice words from the good doctor, but I do have a couple of my own. This Mobile Computing is one of my last acts as a senior writer at PCWorld. I've decided to move out of the conventional journalism biz to pursue a slightly different course. I want to take a moment to thank all those involved at PCWorld who have made the past couple years memorable ones. Stay classy--and if you want to keep in touch with me, I'm only 140 characters away (@gizmogladstone).

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