I am not sure how many of you are familiar with the online community called Benchfly.com, but if you are in the life sciences, this site could be an excellent companion to your studies. Besides entertaining blogs, the site also has video protocols and I have the honor of answering questions posted by graduate students. Most of the time, students ask for advice with an ethical, scientific or personal dilemmas.
Just a week ago, I received a question that turned the tables. One student asked me, what my toughest obstacle was, and how I overcame it. I always joke that my biggest challenge was "all of the above". I had a challenging thesis project and personal struggles, and for many years I was not sure I would graduate. The biggest obstacle came in my 5th year when I developed repetitive strain injury (RSI), specifically tendonitis in my elbows. I discuss this topic in great detail in my book, and I am surprised at how many people are grateful that I bring this silent epidemic to the surface. In fact, the first entry I wrote in Gradshare was an Expert Opinion column about RSI under Work-Life Balance.
If you don't know what RSI is, you are lucky, but I encourage you to keep reading. When I interviewed former graduate students for my book 28 out of 100 experienced RSI to some extent, ranging from mild discomfort to excruciating pain in their arms and hands leaving them unable to type for weeks or months. Unfortunately, I was in the latter category, which is why RSI was definitely the biggest challenge in my graduate career. RSI, which refers primarily to injury in the hands and arms due to extensive typing and pipetting, can be very sneaky. One day, you notice mild discomfort and the next day your elbows are swollen and you cannot even write a check. Early warning signs include neck pain and back pain, which are frequently ignored for years before full-blown RSI hits. The best prevention is a comfortable posture during typing and frequent breaks which include stretching. If you have persistent pain or discomfort, seek help. You might be able to nip this debilitating problem in the bud.
So, how did I overcome this condition? In six years, I went from being unable to hold a book without pain to writing a doctoral dissertation, 8 publications during graduate school and my postdoc, and then to publishing a book about graduate school. My strategy was to remain resourceful and to keep taking small steps every day. Some days the steps were backwards, but I kept trying (analogy to graduate school?). For example, I spent a lot of time learning voice-activated soft-ware, which was not helpful in the end. (Note: voice activated soft-ware has come a long way since then, so by all means give it a try if typing/mousing is painful. Even if it only cuts down on typing partially, it could make a big difference in your condition).
When RSI hit me first, I was in so much pain I could not even do the exercises recommended by my doctor and physical therapist. My doctor recommended surgery, but I refused. This is of course a personal decision, one to be made with your doctor. I sought help from alternative therapies (yoga, meditation, Feldenkrais) and eventually I got to the point where I could type for a few minutes at a time. Then I tried different keyboards, mice, chairs, and voice-activated software until I found the most comfortable combination. I attended RSI support groups, read every book I could about RSI, did strengthening exercises every day, and used my savings to pay for therapeutic massage. It is safe to say that overcoming RSI (and the stress it caused) was a full-time job for the first 6 months. My recovery was mostly in the positive direction with a few setbacks caused by stress or excessive lifting or typing on certain days (the setbacks usually lasted a few days to a week). This journey changed my life. Prior to RSI, I had lifted weights twice a week, swam with the Masters Club three times a week, and worked on my thesis 6 days a week. During my recovery I felt lucky to do light aerobic exercise without pain. I typed my thesis a few minutes at a time using break timer software (called RSIGuard) to enforce frequent breaks and stretches and avoid re-injury.
I always encourage readers to share their experiences, and this is certainly a topic where we would be very interested in your feedback. Given the frequency of this condition, there must be readers coping with this problem. To share your story or ideas of recovery, hit the orange "Reply" button.
Disclaimer: This column is not meant to give you medical advice. If you experience any physical discomfort during typing or pipetting, seek help from a medical professional.
Wishing you the best,
Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet