Repetitive Strain Injury and Graphic Design

This is a really unsexy topic for me to blog about, but I wanted to draw attention to the issue of RSI in the graphic design profession. It’s an injury that is very real in the workplace, but it doesn’t get much press. Usually sufferers pass it off as “just part of the job”, but I’d be interested to find out the actual percentage of people who suffer RSI and the percentage of those people who take days off or “just work through it”.

Moreover, OSHA’s sound advice to “vary activities” and “take frequent breaks” doesn’t acknowledge the reality that many jobs, such as graphic design, programming, and word processing, require nonstop computer use.
Deborah Quilter

Generally, I just try to work through it, but this typically results in a pretty bad spasm or episode, meaning I am forced to take a day off work to have a break from sitting on my butt all day making tiny and precise gestures with my right hand. Even typing this entry is giving my wrist a break, and I’m always amazed that a sedentary job like graphic design results in such debilitating injury.

At work I use a Wacom Graphire graphics tablet. To be honest, I thought this would be the solution to all of my pointing related problems (sore neck, sore shoulders, burning wrist, restricted movement in my fingers), but after two months of use I can’t say its any better than the optical mouse I had before. I do love using a tablet and stylus, it has sped up my work flow quite a bit, however I can’t feel any benefits in terms of my RSI, which I’m really disappointed about.

So I’ve done a little bit of research and gathered some cool ideas for combating RSI. I’ll pick a few to road-test over the next few months and track their effectiveness.

Workstation Setup

The MIT IS&T ATIC Lab (holy acronyms batman!) recommend you set up your workstation like so:

  • Feet rest flat on the floor or on a footrest.
  • Thigh is supported by soft chair.
  • Lower back is supported .
  • Upper arms hang loosely from the shoulder.
  • Forearms extend horizontally to the floor towards the keyboard.
  • Keyboard is lowered and angled slightly away (negative pitch) so the wrist is in neutral position.
  • Mouse is next to the keyboard at the same level.
  • Wrists do not lean on any surface (including wrist rests) while typing or mousing.
  • You are centered in front of the monitor.
  • The monitor screen is at right angles to any windows.
  • Eyes are at a comfortable distance from the monitor.
  • Eyes look down at the monitor at a 15-20 degree ngle.
  • If telephone use is frequent, use a headset instead of a handset.

90 Degree Mousing Action!
Thanks to 456 Berea St earlier this year, I started using my mouse in this seemingly awkward configuration. It really isn’t that weird once you get used to it, and before I got the tablet at work it helped fantastically!

Office Yoga Assistant

by Mipsis Software

This software looks to be pretty cool. It pops up in the lower right hand corner of your screen, and stays on top of everything else on your desktop. Text instructions and videos take you six simple exercises. After just one round of stretches, I felt tension in my arms and neck release! Imagine doing this at regular intervals all day – could I really be pain free at the end of the working day?! I’ll let you know how this treats me!

The program runs in the background, prompting me to take a break and stretch every hour. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be any good to me. I’ve been shown all these exercises before – the problem is remembering to do it! If I am prompted visually on my screen, I can see myself actually doing these stretches regularly.

The best part about this program is that it’s free. Try it for yourself!

Wrist Exercise Tools

The Eggsercizer
This palm-sized egg-shaped ball helps build up muscle strength in the hand and arm, and there are four different resistance levels. To me, this is an overpriced stress ball. We made stress balls at primary school by putting flour inside of a couple of balloons. I’m sure the theory is the same, but there’d have to be some kind of other squishable substance inside for higher resistance.

From Sportstek – the Eggsercizer costs AUD$15.00 + GST and postage.

I LOVE the concept behind this (and the name), because I love tactile things (and puns). I’d just worry that there would be residue that got into my keyboard or tablet stylus!!

From – Theraputty costs USD$7.95 + shipping.

Topical Cream

Tiger Balm
I am a huge fan of Tiger Balm Red and my family has been using this ointment since forever. There are a few different ointments, but this one is ideal for reducing swelling and pain in muscles. The scent is pleasant too – it’s not as stinky as Dencorub!

Sports Ice Joint and Muscle Gel
This comes highly recommended from a friend of mine who suffers from acute pain in her joints, but is allergic to anti-inflammatory drugs.

How do you combat RSI in the workplace? Let me know – there needs to be much more discussion about this condition.


  1. All my workmates are now using the OfficeYoga. It is awesome in the way it reminds you to get the stuff done and take a break. :)

  2. Hi Natalie,

    Just wondering how you position your tablet in relation to your keyboard? To the side or in front of…

    Also, you might try Glucosamine and Chondroitin for your RSI, it helped a friend out a lot with RSI from guitar playing.


  3. I know your blog is sort of dated from ’07,but I’m so glad I found someone willing to acknowledge that this is so real for those of us in the design world. I’ve worked in studios where we’ve gone non stop 15 hours a day, 7 days a week (often spending the night under our desks-or wherever we could crash) just to get the job done. I’ve finally ended up with a major case of RSI PLUS. Before you ask if I’ve tried anything for it, well…I actually got the job of typesetting the first manual on corporate ergonomics, so I’ve literally written the book. And I’m here to tell you there is NOTHING that works in real life. Just wanted to say thanks and encourage you all to keep getting the word out there, cuz I agree we really need to keep talking about it before someone comes up with the real deal fix! Thanks, Big T

  4. Glucosamine and Chondroitin are the building blocks of cartilage and connecting tissues. Glucosamine, also known as chitosamine, is a substance that occurs naturally in the covering of shellfish.

  5. I would suggest adding Penetrex to your list of topical creams. It is the only thing that has saved me. Not only does it relieve pain, but it actually reduces swelling so it’s not masking the pain and further damaging your hand/wrist/whatever.  It has a nice smell, kindof like mint dental floss. I find it is easier if you get someone else to rub it into your hand for you.

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