wrist pain working from home

How to avoid wrist pain working from home: Confession of a Physiotherapist

by | Musculoskeletal Disorders

how to avoid wrist pain working from home: confession of a physiotherapist
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I can remember it like it was yesterday. How I developed wrist pain working from home.

It was 2011. And I had just finished a Master’s programme in Ergonomics.

Knew I wanted to be an Ergonomist. Assessing workers and helping companies prevent and reduce their risk of work-related injuries. And as I was already a seasoned Physiotherapist (over 10 years of experience), I was making the shift from working in the hospital to consulting for companies.

But there was a dilemma, I wanted to do it on my own terms.

I had a child, you see! And in as much as a loved what I was about to embark on. I also wanted to be at home with my then-toddler. So, a typical 9-5 job wouldn’t do it for me.

After much ado, I decided to start a business and work from home.

I bought myself a hybrid laptop, you know those kinds of laptops that can be turned into a tablet. And set up shop (my home office) in the corner of our bedroom.

That’s How I Had Wrist Pain Working from Home

Fast-forward 5 months later, and I started having aches and pains. Neck and back pain. The worst of it all was wrist pain working from home. Now the neck and back pain I could put up with.

But the wrist pain. My oh my!

it was excruciating! It tingled when I typed. Throbbed and radiating pain up to my elbows. And sometimes, it felt like my index and middle fingers were on fire.

I’m a physiotherapist, right? I should know what to do.

I took it for granted because I was a physiotherapist. And to make matters worse, I was consulting with companies and showing their employees how to work pain-free. And here I was, in pain.

Looking back, if I was to start all over again to set up shop and work from home. These are the working from home mistakes I would never do to prevent injury.

1.      Never Use a Dining Table

We lived in the city and the apartment was quite small. We had a tiny stowaway dining table and I used it as my computer desk. The problem was it was too high.

Dining tables are usually too high to be used as computer desks.

If used with a dining chair or a rigid chair, you would have to raise your shoulders or fan your elbows out to work from it which could lead to shoulder and neck pain.

The best option is to get a computer desk designed to be used at elbows-height. The industrial height of a computer desk is between 72cm – 76cm. It should comfortably fit you if you are under 6 feet tall.

2.      Never Use a Table with Sharp-Edges

radiused table to reduce wrist pain working from home
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Another problem was my dining table had sharp edges. Every time I typed, my wrist dug into the table. This working from home mistake pinched the vital nerves and tendons and blood vessels in my wrist. Over time, the pinched structures made my right-hand tingle, cold and painful. And I developed what is known as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (a wrist injury you can get working from home).

What I should have done was to invest in a small computer desk with rounded or radiused edges (see picture above)

3.    Never Use a ‘Cheap’ Office Chair with only 2 Adjusters

Yes, that was me! I had an office chair. I knew I needed an office chair because I didn’t want to use our rigid low-seat dining chair, but the office chair had only 2 adjusters.

It could only adjust the seat height, and recline or sit upright. Moreso, the lumbar support was in the wrong position (lower than the small of my back), and my back ached from being unsupported.

Furthermore, it came with non-adjustable armrests which couldn’t be tucked under the desk.So, I couldn’t work as close to the desk as I should and overstretch to reach the desk. My wrist dug at the edge of the table. It was a huge mistake and I paid dearly for it.

4.      Never Work Long Periods from a Laptop Without Accessorising

Yep! Laptops are great when you are mobile. You can whip it out and use it anytime anywhere. But they aren’t designed to be used long-term as a substitute for a desktop computer. Desktop computers force you to work with a separate keyboard and mouse allowing you to work in a good neutral posture.

Because of the way laptops are designed, you would have to bend your neck and back to work from it. Doing that for many hours a day, constantly, would overstress your spine and give you neck and back and even shoulder injuries.

And that’s what happened to me. I worked directly from the laptop all the time, and didn’t accessorise. I didn’t get a separate keyboard and mouse. So I developed back and neck pain.

5.      Never Work Relentlessly

Prolonged sitting has been labelled as the new smoking. Because of the ill health it could cause you. It could lead to back pain, neck pain, heart disease, kidney and liver disease and reduced life span.

This TED-ED explains more:

I would work for hours on end trying to finish a project or report. Even allowed my clients to pressurise me to submit their work early.

But I was new to this consulting gig, and I didn’t want to lose any clients. So, I punished myself to finish the job. My wrist tingled so badly that I got up in frustration.

What do I do now?

I take more breaks now. Tea breaks, school runs (walking), stroll into the woods with my children, work a couple of hours at a time and take days off. I give myself time to finish a project and work a strict working time with my client. Say, if I get a message from them in the evening, I don’t reply until the next working day. With time they knew that was how I operated and stopped messaging me after 6 pm.

6.      Never Work too Near a Window

I knew I had to work near lighting, natural lighting at best. So, I did. But I was too close to the window and failed to protect myself from glare. Because of the way the sun moved throughout the day, glare was random at different times of the day.  

Glare which causes headaches and eyestrain can come directly or indirectly from natural or artificial lighting. Knowing how to position your workstation in relation to your light source would help to reduce glare.

The trick is to sit adjacent and not too close to the window.

To avoid glare, I would work with my wrist perched on the edge of the table. That worsened my wrist pain working from home.

7.      Don’t Mismanage Time

Another huge mistake I made was to allow my clients to talk me into doing more work than was agreed upon. You know, when your boss repeatedly makes small requests and before you know it, you have done twice what was initially agreed upon. This is known as PROJECT-CREEP.

It happened to me a couple of times. Eventually, I had to learn to say ‘No’. I also learnt not to take too much work. You know the fear that if you turn down work you might have ‘work-famine’.

I hardly took breaks which affected family time. I never finished when I said I would. My insufferable kids, bless their hearts, felt it too. With them asking, ‘Mummy, are you done yet?’.

‘In a minute I always said.’ (not really!)

I worked long hours and because I took inadequate breaks, my wrist dug into the edge of the laptop and I developed wrist pain working from home.

I had to learn the hard way and be firm with my answers. Replying to emails only during work time. Plan my week better. Even make room for emergency or unexpected events (with kids that happens).

8.      Never Think Typing is the Only Way

To be fair I was new to this working from home malarkey. When I worked in an office, my time was divided into seeing patients (typed ½ of the time), meetings (didn’t type), tea breaks, lunch breaks, chatting with colleagues, printing etc. I didn’t sit all day typing away.

But now most of the jobs required me to type. I typed assessments, proposals, marketing products… I was always on my computer.

My fingers were overworked and my wrist resting on my laptop pinched. I hardly took breaks because I had to finish before the school run. And that worsened my wrist pain. It was so bad that I hated typing. I couldn’t continue like that, I had to do something.

So I was on a hunt for typing alternatives.

First I tried software recognition software. All I had to do was speak and it would type on the screen for me. It was OK but the problem I had was learning to use the different commands and prompts. I always forgot to say ‘full stop’ or ‘comma’. And it needed time to recognise my voice, so mistakes were made.

Secondly, I didn’t have the time for all that. So I tried another alternative.

I love writing on paper. I’m old school like that.

With that in mind, I had to find something that worked for me. I didn’t like a stylus pen, it felt weird. Did I say I was old school?

After much hunting, I found it.

Digital Note Pad Reduced my Wrist Pain Working from Home

It was a digital notepad, Bamboo Folio Smartpad from Wacom. When I wrote on it, it digitalised and saved my notes into text in an App. I particularly like it because I wrote on actual paper (any A5 or A4 notepad). It came with a real pen with ink, not a stylus.

The Smartpad is like a folder with an A5 notepad in it. The pen is digital. So when I write, it captures my scribblings and saves them in a free app downloadable from App Store or Google Play. From the app, I can export it as an image (jpg or png), editable texts, pdf and other formats meant for artists and illustrators. I export my texts to my word processor app and edit them.

I just loved it. My wrist loved it because I wasn’t constantly typing, and so did my back because I could write anywhere (bed, sofa, even in the bathroom). And also my neck loved it because I could recline and write.

I must say, it translates my handwriting well. The only consumable is the ink cartridges replacement (pack of 5) that could last up to 6 months.

Now my wrist is not constantly typing and is overworked because holding a pen puts it in a better posture. And I do not have wrist pain anymore.

Another great alternative is Speech to Type apps. I sometimes use my Windows Speech Recognition tool. I like using it to gather my thoughts.

9.      Never Work Without Intermittently Stretching Out

Did I mention I’m a Physiotherapist?

Thankfully, I knew the importance of exercise. You see, I was working for long stretches without a break. Initially, I ignored it. But when my ache turned to pain, I knew I had to do something.

So I designed for myself an exercise programme. I tackled two areas: the hypersensitive nerves, and the muscles of my wrist. I did my exercises twice a day with intermittent stretches in between work.

10. Never Sit and Work Barefeet

Yep! you heard me right.

Wear cosy slippers. Being barefoot is great when walking around the house. But working for long hours on a hard floor could lead to heel pain. Because it makes your foot ache and also made your muscles cold. Cold muscles increase your risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

Cosy is the way to go if you work from home. I’m not a fan of stuffing my feet into shoes at home. However, cosy slippers is one of the perks of working from home.

I had a pink fluffy slipper that was warm and soft. My feet were relaxed and splayed out. No more ‘ouches’ for my feet. Now, I only wear proper shoes when I’m working at a clinic or a client’s office.

And that’s it. My mad confession of working from home and the mistakes I made that gave me injuries.

The Rules of Work Still Applies at Home

I have learnt the hard way to take care of my wrist, back and neck. Because it’s so easy to have wrist pain working from home when the principles of working safely are ignored. These are rules of work that must be obeyed. From setting up the right workstation, adopting the correct posture, working in the right environment, to planning out your daily tasks.

And that’s what being an Ergonomist is all about. I know how the rules of working safely. And I can help you work safely and injury-free too.

I’m lucky because I know what to do to prevent musculoskeletal injuries (i.e. when I heed my own advice) and I can help you too.

What about you?

How are you dealing with your injuries? What are you doing to prevent working from home injuries?

Ugo is a Workplace Musculoskeletal Health Expert. She is a Chartered Physiotherapist with a master's degree in Ergonomics. 20 years of experience. Treated thousands of patients and workers. Conducted numerous work assessments across many industries. Worked with companies including BP, and UKPN. On a mission to help you work from home pain-free and reduce your risk of developing work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD).

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