Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

Are you at risk?

As a freelance translator you are at high risk for contracting RSI: working incessant hours at the computer, under a lot of pressure to meet tight deadlines, the one and only employee in your company which means you have sole responsibility to get it all done. If you want to succeed you have to give your all. It is workaholics who are most likely to get repetitive strain injury! It is a completely self inflicted condition!

The few paragraphs below are my personal take on this illness. I only give an outline. Do yourself a favour and get at least one of the recommended books. Prevention is a lot less painful and costly than cure!

My experience with RSI

I first heard about Repetitive Strain Injury quite early on in my career. So I warned people of it on my site. However, I failed to heed my own advice.

Pain crept up on me very gradually. First it was the right wrist hurting intermittently, then the pain moved up the arm, into the shoulders and into the neck, finally it made itself felt between the shoulder blades. It started with the odd twinge here and there, the sort you can easily shrug off, the sort that will go away if you take a little rest. Then the pain became more persistent, until it became chronic - and very difficult to shift: I have now had numerous sessions with a couple of physiotherapists, I have seen a number of massage therapists, I have had acupuncture and see a Feldenkrais practitioner; I have been off work for months on end to give my body a rest “ and I still cannot claim to be pain free!

Business and Financial Considerations

You are probably thinking: that would never happen to me. I'd stop well before it came to that! But what if you had worked very hard to get your business off the ground and found that just as your business is becoming successful, the pain is making itself increasingly felt? Would you stop at that point and risk losing your hard-earned good-will with agencies and private clients by turning work away or giving it to colleagues? I think chances are you would struggle on, hoping that the pain will miraculously go away.

Let's say that after years of self abuse, you decide to do something about the pain. You see your GP/physio. They say: don't work for at least three weeks or even three months! Panic. What are you going to live on while you are off work? How are the bills going to be paid? What is going to happen to your business?

In 2010 the statutory Employment and Sickness Allowance (ESA) was about £65 per week and was being paid for three months max. You had to be severely disabled to get it any longer than for these 13 weeks and repetitive strain injury did not quite qualify you for that status. Additional benefits were means tested. - Not an appealing prospect.

If you had been working for an employer and were now unable to work due to a condition contracted at work, you might be entitled to Industrial Injuries Compensation. If you are self-employed, however, you are not entitled to a penny unless you have a good private invalidity insurance.


  • Look at RSI as a professional hazard. Prevent it happening to you by avoiding work patterns that cause you pain.
  • If you suffer from any twinges, act now. It will save you a lot of pain, time and money.
  • Buy the books I recommend below and follow their advice or get the relevant advice on line. (I'm NOT on commission.)
  • Find out what it is that is causing the pain. Is it a weakness in one arm, your posture, the ergonomics, too many hours or what? The better you can pinpoint it, the easier to change.

Seeking medical advice and treatment

If you have not acted early enough and you now find that your pain levels have become too high to remain ignored, see your GP.

However, here in the UK, the following is likely to happen: the GP doesn't know much about your condition and will recommend rest, e.g. arm in a sling for three weeks, or recommend you wear a wrist support/splint. These courses of action may ease your pain temporarily but they do not tackle the root cause of your ailment: too many hours at the computer in the wrong position.

What you need is a physiotherapist experienced in RSI treatment AND a massage therapist who does deep tissue massage. NOW!

If you live in Great Britain, you may know that NHS physio appointments are as rare as gold dust. My initial waiting period was 14 weeks!!! 14 weeks of doing nothing, earning nothing and NOT getting any better did not sound very appealing to me. So I went private. I got an appointment the next day. £30 per treatment, but well worth it.

The NHS does not pay for massage treatment. GPs are not allowed to recommend private massage therapists. Try to get a personal recommendation from friends or neighbours or visit the Find a Practitioner page on the General Council for Massage Therapies website GCMT . The massage therapist should be qualified to carry out sports injuries and remedial massage and do deep tissue massage.

Remember: GP, physiotherapist and massage therapist only look at the symptoms of your disability, it is YOU who has to tackle the causes!

Tackling the Root Causes of RSI in Translators

Spending hundreds of pounds on therapy for reducing the pain is a total waste of time if you don't change the way you work!

If you are suffering regular pain, you need to look at the root causes. a) Check the ergonomics of your work station, b) Check your posture or ask someone to watch you while you work. To create an ergonomic work station, search for ergonomics online and you'll find all the information you need. You could also splash out and pay for a workstation assessment. Apparently, some physiotherapists offer this service (use search words workstation assessment, ergonomist and the area you live in or use

To retrain your body to function more smoothly and reduce or avoid pain by moving differently, find a Feldenkrais therapist/class. Read up about it here: Feldenkraisinstitute.

I have also found acupuncture useful, although I believe that it may only subdue the pain and not solve the underlying problem.

Aromatherapy massage is very pleasant but won't help you to get rid of your deep seated muscle, tendon or even nerve problems in well established RSI.

So, what is it exactly that you may be doing wrong?

Seven deadly sins of computer workers which cause or aggravate Repetitive Strain Injury:

  • Work station is not set up properly: screen too high/low, wrong chair, keyboard etc*
  • Slumping: Your spine is not in its natural shape but your shoulders are forward, head and neck down (or jutted forward), you are not sitting on your sitting bones. You're being a hedgehog.
  • Flexed wrists, not in line with your arms: you are resting one or both of them on the edge of the desk or keyboard.
  • Wrists are angled outwards, not in straight line with the arms, and elbows are away from the body, not straight by its side.
  • Legs are not at right angles to the body, feet not supporting your weight.
  • Working too many hours without warming up, regular breaks and exercises.
  • Ignoring early symptoms.

Even if your posture is absolutely correct, your body is not designed to remain fixed in one position for hours on end.

Essential Information about RSI

Two books which are essential reading for EVERY translator:

Suparna Damany, Jack Bellis: It's Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome!
Excellent background about the condition and information about various therapies and exercises.
Emil Pascarelli, Deborah Quilter: Repetitive Strain Injury
Extensive information on prevention, diagnosis and learning how to work properly at the computer.

While some of the information in these two publications overlaps, and some background information is somewhat outdated, between these two books you'll get all the information you need to help yourself out of the hole you've dug for yourself or “ even better “ to prevent yourself from doing so. The books are easily available in Britain.

If you don't want to spend any money, go online and visit RSI Rescue. The site is run by the authors of It's not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome! and is very informative. Or simply search for Repetitive Strain Injury on any search engine. You'll find lots of interesting sites.

Check List

This is a check list you might want to print out and put on the wall in sight of the computer. Every once in a while, think FREEZE. Freeze in exactly the position you're in at that time and check the following:

  • Are you SITTING TALL? If you straighten out your back, does your head come up a centimetre or two? Then, yes, you have been slumping.
  • Are you LEANING to one side? Is one shoulder/elbow lower than the other?
  • Is your CHIN JUTTING FORWARD? Tuck it in, pull the neck back so the head sits straight on the neck.
  • Are your shoulders DOWN? If not, shrug them up as high as possible, then release. Repeat.
  • Is YOUR WRIST RESTING ON THE KEYBOARD or the edge of the desk? Don't let it!
  • Are your arms close to your body?
  • Is the chair adjusted correctly, so that your feet are firmly placed on the ground and carry some of your weight, so it's not all left up to your back?
  • When did you last have a break away from the computer? Have one now.
  • When did you last stretch, get up from the chair, exercise the eyes? Move away from the desk for a couple of minutes and let your body breathe. Do one of the exercises from one of the recommended books.
  • What are you gaining by NOT looking after yourself NOW? What are you risking?

If you regularly find yourself an offender, try to rid yourself of one bad habit at a time. Don't try changing everything at once. That's stressful and may do more harm than good. You may not do any of the above and still have pain. Seek professional help! Now!

Prevention, prevention, prevention!

Whether you are only just starting out or have been established for years, find a massage therapist near you now and visit him/her at least once a year for a Body MOT. Explain what your working life looks like and ask where s/he thinks your problem areas are and what exercises you can do to prevent them recurring and/or becoming chronic. That way you may be able to nip things in the bud.

If you can't touch type, learn it now, before you get too busy. It will save you a lot of potential pain in the neck (no pun intended) and a lot of time during your career.