It’s been nearly 3 years since I first started experiencing pain in my arms, which I attribute to my data heavy computer based job at the time and my cycling every day, swimming three times a week, moving house and packing boxes, using a ridiculous mini laptop for my home computer use that made me type in a cramped up style and generally overusing my arm muscles on a regular basis. As a cure I tried taking a couple of weeks off and resting, but two days of being back at work and my right arm was hurting again. I then tried wearing a splint and switching to using the mouse with my left hand and doing as much as possible with my left arm, and the problem spread to my left arm and my neck and my right arm didn’t get any better. Next I tried seeing a hand physiotherapist in conjunction with working only half days and dictating the bulk of my work to an intern as it wasn’t possible to use voice recognition software (you can imagine how that went in an open plan office) but the pain just got worse and five months down the line I’d lost strength in both my arms and could barely hold a glass in two hands.
Seeing no other alternative, I quit my job and moved back in with my parents (A.K.A. my escape from the rat race). Since then I’ve rested my arms as much as possible, used the computer minimally (mainly the typing associated with this blog), done some art (as documented through this blog), had a baby and have had various different kinds of physiotherapy:
1)For the first three months of not working the I had a combination of massage, ultrasound and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TEMS) twice a week. The pain gradually receded and I was able to do slightly more drawing each day but my arms were still weak and I was wearing my wrist splints at night and during some of the day most days. The thought of lifting anything over 2-3kg for any length of time was unthinkable, and I was reliant on my parents to take care of me in terms of doing washing/cleaning/cooking because of the pain these activities caused.
2)For the next 3 months, because of my parents moving and my going travelling I had no physiotherapy, but I did start taking Amitriptyline in a low dose to combat the chronic pain I was experiencing. I wore elbow supports constantly, and my wrist splints on days when I was doing more activity than normal, e.g when I was packing or unpacking my bag while travelling. I used a big backpack instead of a suitcase as I would not have been able to wheel a suitcase around and I still used the computer as little as possible and did very few household chores (thank you to everyone who helped look after me during this time!!). I had an ultrasound scan of my arm which showed I had a tear in my brachial muscle of my right arm and I was diagnosed with tennis elbow. Surgery was recommended as a solution, but I decided not to go down this route because the long term recovery rates are not very good.
3) When I returned from travelling I moved in with my boyfriend in Brussels and started physiotherapy again in earnest, seeing Sophie Lyon at Corpus Nova once/twice a week for about 9 months (with breaks for holidays). She used a combination of deep massage and the ‘hook’ treatment, which does not seem to exist in the UK, but literally involves poking at muscles with hooks, and did really seem to help. Over the course of the year I gradually weaned myself off wearing the elbow supports every day, and only used the wrist splints when I’d used my arms more than normal. I still wasn’t working, but I was drawing more during this time (as can be seen on this blog) and I started taking French lessons which involved writing notes and taking exams. I couldn’t take the Amitriptyline any more because I became pregnant, but I found that the pain was becoming more manageable and not such a daily occurrence. Luckily for my boyfriend I was also getting stronger and could carry out more of my share of the household chores!
4) After my daughter was born, initially I was terrified that my arms were not going to be able to cope. I found the first few days of breastfeeding exhausting and had to wear my splints and elbow supports continually to be able to hold her in the necessary feeding position, even with multitudes of pillows to prop her up. Luckily however this phase was only temporary as my arms adjusted to lifting my 3kg princess, and through a combination of better pillow use and breastfeeding lying down I got through the first couple of weeks. I tried to continue with physiotherapy after she was born, but getting to my physio Sophie’s office involved taking a small lift that my pram didn’t fit into unless I took it apart (with Sclemmie still in it) and by doing that I wrecked my arms more than any benefit the massage gave me so I stopped after a few sessions. Sophie recommended another physio who used PCP therapy (a continuous pressure therapy technique) and had a groundfloor office, which I did find helpful but again not enough to outweigh the pain of pushing the pram all the way to his office (about half an hour), so after five sessions I stopped going to physio altogether. (Also by this point Sclemmie would no longer stay quiet for a twenty minute physio session, so it’s a bit of a moot point).
5) in June 2015 I read ‘it’s not carpal tunnel syndrome!‘ (which you should stop and read if you are experiencing any kind of upper body pain that you think is linked to your work. I meant it, stop everything and READ IT NOW!!!), and since then I’ve been trying to do a variety of the stretches and exercises it recommends daily. Sclemmie has also provided the perfect strength training, as I’ve been lifting her each day as she gradually gets heavier and heavier. She’s now 8.3kg and whilst a year ago I would have baulked at lifting that weight, now I can pick her up easily and even swing her around a little bit each day.
So after three years and a variety of treatments and rest from heavy computer use, am I cured?
In short, no. At a maximum I can lift about 10.6kg for a very short period (I know because that’s how much the travel cot weighs) without being in pain later, which is less than half what I could lift without thinking about it before this all happened. I can do all the daily chores I need to do to look after Sclemmie and run the house (nappy changes, the endless cleaning after she’s thrown porridge and sweet potato around , the washing , the cooking etc etc) without any pain. I can push the pram with Sclemmie and food shopping in it for half an hour or so. However, I still can’t use the computer regularly. This blog entry has taken weeks and weeks to write, a couple of paragraphs at a time. Even doing it like this I know this evening my arms will feel funny and tomorrow I won’t be able to type anything.
I’ve joined an RSI support group on facebook and I go through phases of reading shedloads of the links to useful articles and sometimes I feel like if I could just sort through all the information I would find a cure, but other times I just find it too sad knowing that so many people have such similar stories to mine and are suffering daily. Prevention really does seem to be the only answer so if you are having any pains while working STOP AND STRETCH! And watch out for how much and how your children are using computers/smart phones/tablets/video games and teach them good posture and tell them to take frequent breaks – people younger and younger are becoming affected by RSI and it could have devastating effects on their lives. I’m not sure I will ever be able to join the office workforce brigade again. But hopefully once Sclemmie is in nursery for a couple of mornings a week I will have some time to be more active about my treatment again and I can do more physio and start doing yoga regularly and I will finally bloody bite the bullet and get voice recognition software!