My arms ache from constant computer usage. Any tips / recommendations?
April 4, 2014 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I have a dull, constant pain mostly around my elbows and forearms. I'm entrenched in a technology lifestyle - I work with computers full-time, enjoy gaming in my free-time, and hold my phone up to my face in bed. The pain impacts many activities I deem valuable. How can I mitigate or prevent this pain without drastically altering my lifestyle? I understand you are not my doctor.

I'm a software engineer. For most of the day, I am typing away on a computer or sitting at a desk. I play video games somewhat extensively in my free time.

The pain is enough to discourage me from pursuing my hobbies or even holding a phone/tablet to my face. It's not enough to lower my work productivity yet. I'm looking for ways to reduce or eliminate pain without drastically altering my lifestyle.

General answers are welcome, although I have a few specific questions:

1.) Is there a specific posture I should be aiming for at a desk to reduce pain on my arms? I sit on a chair with armrests for most of the day. As I type, my elbows rest on the armrests and my wrists are slightly above the desk.

2.) Can any products help me with this issue?

3.) I understand that seeking professional help is my best course of action. I intend to do this immediately. Is there a certain type of medical professional I should be looking for?

4.) Can anyone say what pain around the forearms/elbows could possibly indicate*? I do not have pain around my wrists or fingers, which is what I hear about most commonly from other frequent computer users.

*I am aware you are not my doctor and I will take any medical advice with a grain of salt. I intend to see a professional soon.
posted by WCF to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Yoga for computer users (one example).

Try resetting by taking a good long break, like a week at the beach with just novels and no screens/keyboards.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:18 PM on April 4, 2014

Try elastic elbow braces?
posted by thelonius at 12:35 PM on April 4, 2014

I ended up in physical therapy for complications from a minor tear in my left rotator cuff. The exercises consisted of stretching and mild strengthening (using resistance bands). As I did them, they improved my posture, strengthened my shoulder, and also eased pain in my elbows and wrists because my body was taking the stress in more healthy ways. You might call a local PT place and see if you could get an evaluatory session and some exercises. You might be able to get your doctor to send you if the pain is bad enough.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:40 PM on April 4, 2014

Consider seeing a massage therapist. I'm in much the same situation as you -- I use the computer for my job, I play a lot of games in my spare time, and my primary hobbies are writing (on the computer) and knitting (which is also a lot of micro-movements in my arms) -- and I find that seeing an RMT every few months to get them to work out some of the crap in my arms makes a *huge* difference.

The first time I went, it took three visits over three Saturdays, and some of those visits were unbelievably painful, but I went from sometimes waking up crying in the middle of the night because my arm hurt so much to my arm not even twinging at the end of a long day at the computer.

I also really like Voltaren Emulgel as a topical pain reliever.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:41 PM on April 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1. Tilt your keyboard downward, so you're not reaching up for it from the wrist rest, and try to keep your arms at a less than 90-degree angle. See also here, here, and here.

2. Install Workrave (free) to remind you to take regular rest breaks and get up to stretch. Wear braces to keep your arms straight at night and make sure you consciously minimize the amount of time that your arms are bent at the elbow outside of work. Elbow problems can also start in your shoulders, so make sure you give them a stretch, too. Some good yoga poses for this: upward salute, triangle, chair, down dog, seated or standing forward fold (grab your feet if you can). Workrave also shows you how to do anti-RSI stretches.

3. Consult with your primary care physician and ask for a referral to a physical therapist who specializes in computer-related repetitive stress/strain. You could also see a neurologist to have them perform a nerve conduction study to pinpoint where the problem lies.

4. RSI, probably. (I started having pain in my elbows and wound up being diagnosed with cubital tunnel syndrome, but since your hands are unaffected, that's pretty unlikely for you.)
posted by divined by radio at 12:42 PM on April 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

I can't help you with the workspace ergonomics, mostly because everyone is different. You might have to just experiment with different positions to find what works best. Instead, I suggest that you examine your sleeping position and mattress. I had a lot of luck completely reversing my carpal tunnel symptoms by wearing wrist braces to bed. It kept my wrists from being totally crunched while I slept, and even though I couldn't wear them during the day, it seemed to be enough. Maybe you sleep on your side and put further pressure on your arms/elbows? Or you sleep face down and have your arm/shoulder under your head? You can do a lot of damage to yourself when you sleep, oddly enough.

You didn't mention if you work out or lift weights. If you do, be sure that your form is good.

As an experiment, try giving the gaming/after hours computing a total rest for a week, while keeping your work pace normal. See if your pain lessens. If so, you might have to find a better balance between work and leisure. Most injuries require rest to heal. Start there as much as you can stand.
posted by clone boulevard at 12:42 PM on April 4, 2014

What chairs are you using?
posted by rhizome at 1:01 PM on April 4, 2014

In addition to other advice here, I'd strongly recommend finding some other things to do in your free time for a while. These problems chronic problems are easier to manage if you can get the acute symptoms to subside, and part of doing that is avoiding the problem behavior as much as possible.
posted by Good Brain at 1:17 PM on April 4, 2014

First of all, +1 to everything divined by radio said. Especially the part where you need to get up and stretch frequently. The human body was not meant to maintain the same position 18+ hours a day.

Try raising your chair (or lowering your desk, if possible) a little, so that your elbows are in line with or slightly above your wrists. I find this makes a big difference for the ulnar nerve pain I get that starts in the elbow. (If you raise your chair and your feet dangle, find something to rest your feet on.

You may be suffering from golfer's elbow / tennis elbow or some form of tendinitis from the repetitive motion. You may want to look into active release therapy and/or find a physical therapist or orthopedist who can work with you.
posted by geeky at 1:29 PM on April 4, 2014

I tend to get elbow and shoulder pain from too much mousing around. The stretches in this book really helped with the accute pain. Learning to use my mouse left-handed helped a lot too, as I could switch off a bit. (I couldn't do anything fancy with my left hand but it wasn't too hard to get used to web-surfing with it.)

Once I started taking fish oil regularly, one day I realized I hadn't had any pain in my arms or shoulders for awhile.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:40 PM on April 4, 2014

Best answer: I'd start by changing my typing posture, since that is what you do most of the day.

For question 1: I use the Gilbreth typing posture, from the old time-and-motion studies. I sit erect, with no armrests, my upper arm forming an approximately 90 degree angle with my forearms. You can lay a ruler between my forearm and the backs of my hands and it lies flat, with no gap between it and my skin. The woman on this web page illustrates the basic posture pretty well.

Your lower back might need more support than your (likely) tall-backed chair is providing. A backless secretary's chair, with low lumbar support, might be helpful.

In my opinion, most people slouch in front of their computers, and their chairs are almost always far too low.

For question 2, are you using any NSAIDs? Give them a try, although it is a bad thing if you find yourself taking them chronically because you can't find a way to work that doesn't hurt.

For question 4, I'll opine that the reliance on armrests has something to do with your elbow and forearm pain. Your elbows are immobilized, and all motion and shifting has to be done with your fingers, with no possibility for even slight motions of your elbows to allow slightly different patterns of muscle movement. Using the same muscles over and over again in exactly the same way is repetitive stress.

I'm a touch-typing software guy, and ultimately I think you are going to be the one that figures out what is causing you pain, and how to fix it, even if you have the help of professionals (unless they observe you at work, or you show them an accurate setup when you're in their office).
posted by the Real Dan at 1:41 PM on April 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Part of the problem will improve once you throw technology at it. Which may mean replacing your chair, footrest, desk, keyboard, pointing device, and so on. ergo stuff is expensive, but returnable, so a $300 keyboard makes sense if it means a life free from pain. That particular webstore is in Canada, but there's webstores like that everywhere. It does have a broad selection.

enjoy gaming in my free-time
You need a few other hobbies for a while. Non digital ones. (I know you realize this, but ...)

*I am aware you are not my doctor and I will take any medical advice with a grain of salt. I intend to see a professional soon.
Yeah, you totally should. They can do stuff like steroid shots, specific exercises, and give you advice you'll actually follow.

Once you've seen one, you may want to take up a serious exercise program, that addresses the back and shoulders. You may want a specialist personal trainer or such.

If your current chair is slightly sucky, think about a foam roll for it, until you get a uberchair.

Also, these are fun and some folk find them effective. And these are considered effective.

You'll want to throw a bunch of technology and lifestyle solutions at this, and not just a single fix. Otherwise that will address one problem, but effectively redirect wear and tear to a different part of your body, which will start hurting.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:47 PM on April 4, 2014

It took a long time to go away. got pains in my elbows when working in a chair that restricted my range of movement. Check your chair and posture.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:59 PM on April 4, 2014

Background: Also in software, diagnosed with tennis elbow in September. Currently clear of all pain.

I went from happily typing along to "can't move my fingers without crying out in pain" inside of a day. Scared the hell out of me. I thought my career was over, along with all of my hands-required hobbies.

Here are all the things I tried (and the results):

- 10 day course of heavy duty anti-inflammatories (minor reduction in pain, brain fog, stomach upset)

- Not doing any of my hobbies that required my hands (sadness, boredom, depression)

- Taking a month off from work (minor reduction in pain, major reduction in stress)

- Neurokinetic therapy (BINGO! Zero pain after first treatment, and none since)
posted by burntflowers at 2:02 PM on April 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

For your phone at least, that's easily solved. Get a hands-free headset.
posted by Leontine at 2:03 PM on April 4, 2014

Are you using an ergonomic keyboard? I have tremendous arm pain if I use a standard keyboard.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 2:04 PM on April 4, 2014

I use the following:

Trackball instead of mouse (sometimes on an adjustable height IKEA Dave table, which I don't think they make anymore, but maybe an adjustable stool or something you can put down fairly low at your side)
Tennis elbow strap as needed
Ergo (I like Microsoft Comfort Curve better than deep-bowl) keyboard

Mine got worse recently after years of relative peace, and the culprit is phone/tablet. I've started using a stylus and being really careful about how I'm holding my arm, but I've really kind of had to stop using it as much until I heal some.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:39 PM on April 4, 2014

A few years back I went to my doctor, complaining of elbow pain (in my right elbow, and I'm right-handed). He said Tennis Elbow was one of the most common ailments they hear about and diagnose (this at an upscale medical clinic in Silicon Valley). Too much mouse! (No, I don't play tennis.) He prescribed some exercises, also regular doses of Ibuprofen. So, see you doctor. Maybe an orthopedic specialist.
posted by Rash at 3:22 PM on April 4, 2014

i'm an osteopath (canadian - US ones are different) and i see people with this kind of problem every day. usually 1-3 treatments solves their issues entirely, without them changing their other behaviours or spending $$$ on new keyboards. you can memail me if you want more info on this.

if you don't have an osteopath in your area, you could try fascia release techniques like rolfing, or other techniques. Massage can help, but usually won't address the main reason why this is happening.
posted by andreapandrea at 5:32 PM on April 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you ever played the piano? I've found that a good posture for typing is pretty similar (see the picture on this page a bit lower down). You'll inevitably rest your arms on stuff sometimes, but they should be in the air most of the time, with your wrists loose and hands dangling slightly. The angle of your elbow should be a little more than 90 degrees. You're trying to avoid putting a lot of pressure on your wrists, which are stuffed full of nerves and tendons and have definite opinions about how they should be treated.
posted by danteGideon at 4:14 AM on April 5, 2014

Try an ergonomic mouse for your dominant hand, with a trackpad of some sort for your other hand. I use an Evoluent mouse on one side and a Magic Trackpad on the other. My trackpad hand doesn't do the precise stuff, but it's more than good enough to scroll and hit links and the like. Mix it up.
posted by clango at 6:14 AM on April 5, 2014

I had work-interfering RSI a couple years ago. This book (It's Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) helped me quite a bit with psychological relief and understanding some of the pain/recovery/stress/pain cycles I was going through.

Physical therapy helped. The stretches/exercises I learned help me keep things manageable today.

I use a Wacom tablet as much as possible, and hold it in my lap. Luckily I do more art-type work than typing.

I also agree with what divined by radio has to say.
posted by itesser at 4:55 PM on April 6, 2014

I used to have this pain from exactly the same things — typing, trackpad, smartphone, etc. I did have one massage therapist who was helpful but he moved away and it always came back quite quickly. My GP and sports doc and acupuncturist were not able to help.

Finally I found a chiropractor at a clinic focusing on athletes and RSI who was able to help. She's mainly used Active Release Therapy (not traditional chiropractic adjustments) to release the tension in my arms and shoulders and back and taught me stretches and exercises I can do to reverse the damage I do at work every day.

For me, there was a lot of focus on unrounding my shoulders and strengthening my rotator cuff. That computer slouch posture leads to muscle weakness and tension that takes some work to reverse.

I also now mainly mouse with my non-dominant hand, since my right side accumulates damage from everything else I do.
posted by heatherann at 5:25 AM on August 26, 2014

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