don't do it if it hurts
May 10, 2007 5:50 PM   Subscribe

I had a bad case of RSI that is forcing me to switch career. Help me choose what to do next.

I had a bad case of RSI that is forcing me to switch career. Help me choose what to do next.

In February 2004, I came down with a nasty case of repetitive stress injury. I was rushing to make the deadline for my master's thesis (in computer science), I was stressed out, I typed through the pain and injured myself. I did make the deadline and continued on with a Ph.D. program. In 2005, as I was undergoing treatment, my wrists kept worsening until I couldn't type more than a few keystroke without severe pain. I spent 2006 trying to discover ways to finish my Ph.D. without the usage of my hands, without much success. It led, amongst other things, to the creation of the DivaScheme project, but it wasn't enough. Since September I have been on medical leave, unsure if I will ever be a programmer again.

If I am not a programmer, what should I be? The question had never occurred before. I was smart programmer and a good teacher. Academia was the right place for me.

With the injury, I also lost the ability to write by hand on paper for more than a few hours. If I do, my wrists swells up in pain and it takes weeks to recover. This is severely limiting the fields where I can reorient myself. Anything that requires taking classes where I would need to take notes and handwrite exams would be difficult.

I tried applying to become a programming teacher in Qu├ębec, but did not received a single callback, let alone an interview or an offer.

I am trying to elevate my speaker building hobby to a business. While I did land a few contracts, it will take time and risks before it can pay the rent.

In January, I have engaged on the pessimistic path. I have entered a professional degree in sheet metal work. It is a unique path, isn't it? I am a man who transferred from a Ph.D. program to a high school program. As you can guess, the high school level classroom is boring my mind numb. I might die of boredom before I make it out of here. But if I stick with the program for one more year, I should land a decent-paying job, one that my wrists support without pain.

Right now I am applying to become an English teacher in South Korea. What will I do if I discover that my wrists cannot handle the paperwork, I don't know. And the thought of leaving my girlfriend for a whole year is putting a sad touch on what should be an exciting adventure. Granted we've only been together for four months, but she is very sweet and wonderful, and I can see myself spending my life with her. (It is not an option for her to follow me to Korea. She has to take care of her son here, in joint custody with the father.)

I am torn. I can't seem to think of any good option for myself.

Thank you for your help. I appreciate.
posted by gmarceau to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sheet metal is a terrible career (if you can even call it that). Unless you manage the shop you'll go nuts with boredom and quite likely hurt yourself since it's hard to focus on deburring that 2347th plate as it runs through the belt sander. In addition, I can't see that kind of work staying on-shore for long.

But you asked what you should do, not what you shouldn't do. Have you considered learning about physical therapy or exercise physiology? You'd use your hands in many new ways and might learn ways to heal yourself in the process. You would still be in teaching, in a sense.

I'm sorry. I have to go now and pretend I never worked in sheet metal.
posted by chairface at 6:00 PM on May 10, 2007

Can't you take advantage of adaptive technology, if writing/computing is still something you value and want in your life? (You may be wanting a break, of course.) Not for nothing, but I know a quadripalegic who made it through a top ten law school using voice recognition software....and I assume he's practicing or otherwise active in ways that require writing.
posted by availablelight at 6:38 PM on May 10, 2007

FWIW, I've worked with a programmer and a technical writer who each used voice recognition software to get around their RSI issues.

If you really love programming and still wish to be a teacher, look into adaptive tech. You didn't mention if you've sought medical treatment or if you've been relying upon self-treating: I advise the former.

I thought I'd have to give up using a computer to design due to RSI until I discovered Wacom tablets. There's sure to be something out there that will work for you.
posted by jamaro at 6:38 PM on May 10, 2007

BTW, I assume the same notetaking services available to the law student referenced above would be available to you through the disabilities resources center of any major college/university....I'm not buying your fatalism about: "Anything that requires taking classes where I would need to take notes and handwrite exams would be difficult." More severely disabled students do it all the time.
posted by availablelight at 6:40 PM on May 10, 2007

I admit I don't know a lot about RSI, but here are a few ideas. I'm not sure they will work for you, but at least someone can correct me if they won't. I think about this myself, when I get tired of sitting in front of a computer for hours and hours.


dance / yoga instructor

phone company / utility worker (maybe there are still jobs there out in the field, with less paperwork)

plumbing (could involve lots of wrench work, but not sure how you'd be with that)

electrical / HVAC contractor - with this, or even plumbing, if you're good with people, you could potentially have an assistant do all the physically repetitive work / own your own business.

retail shop manager - any kind of retail shop; you could probably work your way up to manager (or enter as a management trainee), then eventually perhaps own your own franchise. I have no idea how much typing/paperwork would be required, and you'd need to plan for what to do if the job shifted under you, but management in something hands-on might be one path.
posted by amtho at 7:32 PM on May 10, 2007

I feel your pain :(

Out of curiousity, have you tried the datahand and physical therapy?

I like chairface's suggestion (some friends used to joke that giving massages helped them avoid RSI because it made their hands stronger -- I don't know how true that is)

When you write, get used to writing with your whole arm instead of moving your wrist or elbow. If you don't have custom wrist splints, you should get some made, and then wear them whenever you write (and when you sleep, but you probably know all this already.) Also, if you're just writing for yourself you can learn shorthand to lessen the amount of strokes you'd need to make.

Some other random career ideas:


baking (might involve kneading dough, which might be a good thing)

working at a museum

working at a technology museum or educational program for kids (even if you're teaching them to program, you don't have to type much yourself)

conversational language instructor (no writing, you can give private lessons.)

QA for speech recognition software (potentially boring, but for a good cause)
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 10:58 PM on May 10, 2007

This is totally random, but you could teach first aid classes (after taking several yourself).
posted by vytae at 8:06 AM on May 11, 2007

I see you've been dealing with this for a while, and obviously know a lot about it, and have tried a lot of things, and most RSI advice I could give would be stuff you've already tried.

I was in your position about ten years ago... My arms hurt from shoulder to fingertip all the time, even at rest. Doing anything hurt. Every doctor told me I'd be substantially impaired for life, and would never work full-time at a keyboard. I was wondering what I could possibly do, how I'd possibly make a living without using my hands.

I'm out of pain and program full-time again now. I wouldn't give up on recovery.

Drop me email (mine's in my profile) if you'd like to talk.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:19 AM on May 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

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