Software engineers do not work physically dangerous jobs. We're not chopping down trees, handling hazardous chemicals, or drilling for oil. Instead, we write code on computers stationed in warm and comfortable environments. Because there are no immediate physical risks as a software engineer, we act as if there are no risks at all. And that's a mistake.
Years of sitting down and working with devices that aren't optimized for the resting positions of our limbs often result in painful repetitive strain injuries (RSI). One of the most common RSIs is carpal tunnel syndrome, which three to six percent of adults are reported to suffer from.
The problem with carpal tunnel syndrome is that it creeps up on you. You can code away happily without any problems for years, then feel a little tingle in your hand for the next few years, and then feel that tingle develop into something so painful you can barely code at all.
You shouldn't let it get to the point of the tingle. In this article, we will explain what the carpal tunnel is and how you can prevent carpal tunnel syndrome so you can have a successful and sustainable career as a software developer.
What is the Carpal Tunnel?
The carpal tunnel and carpal tunnel syndrome are often used interchangeably, but they're not the same. The carpal tunnel is a natural part of the human body. It is a narrow, horizontal passage where your wrist connects to your hand, surrounded by bones and connective tissue.
Muscle tendons pass through this carpal tunnel, as does the median nerve, which controls the muscles in the palm and thumb of your hand and provides feeling to your thumb and nearby fingers.
Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when the tissue inside your carpal tunnel swells. This puts pressure on the median nerve and results in the following symptoms:
You're more likely to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome when you have a smaller carpal tunnel (because of genetics or as a woman). You're also at risk when you have medical conditions that result in inflammation, fluid buildup, and nerve damage, such as obesity or diabetes. But most relevant for software engineers is that carpal tunnel syndrome can be the result of years of repetitive hand and wrist motions.
How to Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Now that we know what the carpal tunnel is, we can talk about preventing carpal tunnel syndrome. A large part of prevention will come from setting up an ergonomic workspace.
This means setting up an environment where your back, wrists, shoulders, elbows, neck, etc... are in their natural resting states and not forced in uncomfortable positions. This will prevent carpal tunnel syndrome as well as many other RSIs such as back pain and mouse shoulder. We have an entire blog post dedicated to ergonomics which we encourage you to check out.
You can also prevent carpal tunnel syndrome by strengthening your wrists. Think wrist curls, wrist rotations, and anything else that requires you to handle and lift heavy weights (deadlift in particular). Such exercises keep your wrists strong and flexible, and lower the risk of injury.
Alternatively, if you don't like lifting weights, hand and wrist stretches are a great idea too. Take breaks at work and practice a few wrist stretches using the instructions in the video below:
It also helps to work in a warm environment. Pain and stiffness worsen in the cold. Wear fingerless gloves or, if you're already suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, a wrist brace to keep your wrists steady and warm while you code.
If you're already struggling with carpal tunnel syndrome, you can buy an ergonomic keyboard and ergonomic mouse. While there's no definitive scientific evidence that these help prevent RSIs, people who are already suffering from an RSI say they are more comfortable to use than a regular mouse and keyboard.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is something that won't show up at the beginning of your career. It can show up decades in. But that's no reason not to take care of your wrists today. Prevention is better than the cure. So:
- Design an ergonomic workspace
- Lift heavy weights
- Incorporate wrist stretches
- Work from a warm environment
- Buy an ergonomic mouse and keyboard (optional)