Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

This may not seem very related to cycling, but for me it was. When I got hit with RSI in 1996 it kept me off my bike for a few months. Ever so gradually over the years I recovered, having lots of setbacks, and only now am I beginning to get back to the way I was before to 1996.

My RSI was caused mainly by years of bad typing. I would slouch at the desk with my elbows on the edge of the table, forearms lying along the surface, with only my hands lifted up to use the keyboard. In addition, I would hit the keys very hard. At that time I had one bike that I used almost all the time. It was a touring bike, with a 53cm long top tube. I had a short stem (7cm), but the bars were quite few inches below the saddle. This felt fine to me, so I wondered why many women complained about their bikes, or bought hybrids with straight bars instead of touring bikes with drop bars.

I was especially brutal to my hands when I typed up my thesis in autumn 1995 and spring 1996. However, somehow they survived, but stopped working a few weeks after I arrived in Cambridge to start a post-doc. I was typing a few things in an awkward position when showing something to a co-worker, when my left hand suddenly stopped working. The left forearm seemed to have given up. I couldn't even turn door handles. And I found that I couldn't ride a bike for any length either before my left arm refused to support my weight. This was not good.

I rested for a few weeks, and then tried typing again, but I changed my typing style to the "official" way. I raised my chair quite a bit, so that when I let my arms hang down from my shoulders and bend my elbows at about 90 degrees, my hands end up positioned over my keyboard which is near the edge of the table. I also learned to type very lightly. Instead of bashing the keys as I used to, I now gently press them, putting only enough pressure on them to make the character appear on the screen. Finally, I found that pressing more than one key at a time per hand made the tendons in my forearms twinge. So I changed my typing style to prevent this. This meant that I would use the right shift or control or alt key in combination with a letter or number key that I would type with my left hand.

The editor I use, emacs, sometimes seems to demand that three keys are pushed at the same time, for example to type Meta-$ (meta is emacs-speak for the alt key), you have to type alt-shift-4. However, the escape key works as a substitute for the alt key: if you hit the esc key, the next key you hit will behave as if you had pressed the alt key at the same time (sort of like a one-keystroke caps lock). So I would type esc, shift-4 to have the effect of Meta-$. This generates more keystrokes, but saves my hands from the awkward stretches.

Bikewise, I initially kept riding the same bike in the same style. After my forearm got better, I noticed that I had problems with my elbows, mostly my left elbow. I now suffered from tendonitis in the elbow, otherwise known as tennis elbow (or reverse tennis elbow, I never could remember which). I would slowly increase my mileage, and then the problems would reoccur. Gradually, I realized that I was putting far too much weight on my hands and arms. In the autumn of 1998 I stopped riding my old touring bike and started riding a mountain bike with a very upright riding position. The change was immediate: the distance I could ride was limited by my legs and bottom, not my arms and elbows! In the couple of years since then, I've changed all my bikes around so that I have a much more upright riding position (see Bodge your bike to fit ).

Another thing that has helped is frequent rubs of my arms and shoulders by my boyfriend, which helps loosen them up so they don't bother me too much. Self massage is good too, of the areas I can reach, in particular the tendons near my elbow which still bother me. Stretching also helps.

The results are that I'm now back into doing the distance riding that I like. In 1999 I did my first century since '96 (which I did just before my arms/hands started acting up), and in 2000 I've done 6 rides of 95 miles or more, including a 170 mile ride from Cambridge to York. However I still have to be very careful. Still I occasionally end up typing too much or too hard and I have to ease off a bit.

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