My co-author was doing his final read through of our big academic book, and complained to me that it made his wrists tired and tight.
When a big book-length (thesis-length) project is coming towards the end, you often find yourself spending long hours, for days in a row, doing the same action over and over. We both find that editing uses a lot more mouse action, which requires very detailed small repetitive actions in a very small range of motion, using your dominant hand with movement focussed in the wrist and index finger. That one finger scrolls and clicks hundreds of times every editing session.
Now serious issues can arise if you are doing this day after day for years. Repetitive strain injuries are definitely something to see a medical professional about, if you experience ongoing pain or if you think you’ve hurt something in your hand. Your university probably has some Occupational Health and Safety desk ergonomic advice about how to set up your desk to reduce the chances that your writing set-up will cause you pain. It can be helpful to think about getting a seperate mouse, not just using your laptop track pad; and having your mouse at a comfortable height and position. You might find that certain mouse designs allow you to have a more neutral hand and wrist position: for example if your hands are small, the standard mouse might not fit in the palm of your hand; whereas if you hands, are large a too-small mouse might make you have to scrunch into a claw to reach the buttons.
But even if your wrists are normally fine, and your desk set up is pretty ergonomic… the extended deep work of whole-manuscript editing can put particular strains on your body. It’s a short term discomfort, and so short term ‘countermovements’ are likely to be effective to help you feel better. Your brain is part of your body, and writing is therefore impacted by sleep, hydration, nutrition, and comfort. Previously I talked about how I dealt with the strain in my posture and on my eyes, and this time I’m going to talk about hands.
Your hands are complicated parts of the body. Your fingertips have an unusually high number of nerve endings in them, so they are well-suited to detailed work. You can use each of your ten fingers together, you can use your fingers to oppose your thumb (for example when gripping a water bottle), or use your fingers and thumbs in a complex configuration (like gripping a pen or doing 10-fingered typing). You have few muscles in the hand, but lots of bones and tendons. Most of the muscles that make you fingers move are up in your forearm, but your forearm is moved by muscles extending and contracting in your upper arm, and your upper arm is also moved by muscles around your shoulders.
When using a mouse, your shoulder and elbow should typically be in a straight line square under your ear, and then you make minimal moves with your arm. Your index and middle finger typically rest on the two buttons (or active areas if you have a track pad or Apple mouse): clicking and swiping and scrolling to move you around the page.
So we have two separate challenges to the body here: arms and shoulders that don’t move much, and fingers and a wrist that does a lot of repetitive motions. Small light physical actions repeated many many times are endurance actions, so they tire you out.
That’s the problem. What can you do about it?
My co-author first talked to his personal trainer, who gave him two great exercises (which I include here with permission and thanks, they are great ideas!)
Exercise 1: Whole arm movements
Your arms have been held in one position for a few hours, and that starts to get uncomfortable. (Good ergonomic posture means you can safely stay in the position for a while without injuring yourself, it doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable or wise to hold it for 8 hours straight!)
Stretch your arms out wide and then move them in exploratory ways. Push your hands back as if swimming through air, raise them over your head, push your hands in front of you. Try rotating your hands and then let the twist run all the way up your arm. How does that feel?
Your shoulders might make interesting noises, that’s normal, but stop if anything hurts and instead move in a different direction. There are no right or wrong movements, this is just about giving your arms variety after they have been still.
Exercise 2: Rest your hands
Your hands, wrists and fingers have been working hard. If they start to hurt, try giving them a break. Stop using your mouse and step away from your desk. Perhaps have a full-on rest, or perhaps do a different kind of work like reading or have a networking meeting–try to pick tasks that don’t need a lot of notes though!
Endurance actions lead to fatigue, and the only thing that cures fatigue is ‘recovery’. Have a snack, drink some water, take a break from the action for a while. Does that help?
The next two exercises are more wrist focussed and you can do them at your desk while you are editing as well as after a long day of work.
Exercise 3: Wrist rolls
Fold your hands into gentle, loose fists, and rotate your whole fist as if you were painting circles with your knuckles. Nice big sweeps around and around for 10-12 circles. Then go round the other way: you might have rotated your hands inward, so go outward, or gone clockwise so now go anticlockwise. Nice big sweeps, around and around for 10-12 circles.
Your wrists might make interesting noises, that’s normal. If anything is uncomfortable, try moving in smaller circles or rotating the wrists with your hands open rather than clenched.
Exercise 4: Finger massage
Using your fingers, a tennis ball, or any other massage tool. Apply gentle pressure all around your finger bones. Start with the thumb on your dominant hand, and begin at the top, squeezing, prodding, moving it, see what feels good. Move down the thumb, past the knuckles. Keep going once you reach your palm. The fleshy mound at the base of your thumb, the space between your thumb and index finger and where your thumb meets your wrist can be interesting places.
If it feels like the sensation is helping, do that. If it feels unhelpful, move on and try something else that feels nicer.
Do the same for each finger, starting at the fingertip, moving down to the knuckles, and into the hand. The feelings may surprise you!
Finally: do that thing you know you are supposed to do
Many people have had great advice from a physical therapist, doctor, personal trainer, yoga teacher or other source. You know it works, and really helps you, but you don’t always remember to do it.
Here’s a reminder about that thing. Do that thing now! Does it feel better?
This is general information that may not be right for your body, please avoid or amend any activity that might cause you injuries. To reduce the risk of injury, before beginning any exercise program, please consult a healthcare provider for appropriate exercise prescription and safety precautions.