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What to do when your mousing wrist hurts

One day, I woke up with a really painful wrist. Here's what I did to make it better. And these are techniques you can also employ to prevent serious wrist damage.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
woman holding her wrist
pukkato/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, I woke up to a tremendous amount of pain in my wrist. Technically, it was where the flexor carpi radialis muscle meets my wrist, but regardless of the medical terminology, it frickin' hurt!

This was not an entirely new sensation. If you use computers, you're most likely familiar with the terms carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injury. This is the pain that can occur when pressure on a nerve in the wrist causes pain.

Also: The best ergonomic mice you can buy

The problem with carpal tunnel is it can get worse and worse. The more you stress those inflamed nerves and muscles, the more damage can be done, sometimes resulting in the need for wrist surgery.

I have long had a rule for dealing with the onset of carpal tunnel, which I'll detail below.

As soon as it hurts, stop using it

You'd be surprised at how often this is the perfect fix. Throughout my career, as soon as I noticed the pain, I stopped using my mouse and keyboard. If I waited a day or so, the problem always went away.

Simple, cheap, and non-invasive.

I almost always work seven days a week, so if I had to declare a wrist sick day, there was usually no real problem. After all, almost everyone is entitled to a day off once or twice a year.

Not this time

Unfortunately, not this time. This time I had a deliverable due on Wednesday and I had to get it done. Worse, this time my wrist hurt a bit worse than on previous occasions. I was honestly somewhat worried.

Also: How this wireless touchpad and mouse desk setup saved my wrists

To meet my obligation and still care for my wrist, I turned to a combination of gear and work-practice changes. Together, my strategy worked. By Wednesday morning, the wrist pain had mostly subsided. And, by babying my wrist for the subsequent few days, my wrist is back to normal.

In this article, I'm going to first talk about my work-practice changes, and then discuss the resources I used to support those changes.

Let's go.

Narrow the focus

Unfortunately, I couldn't take the day off and binge-watch Doctor Who. That would have been my preferred (and long battle-tested) change in work practice to heal the carpal tunnel pain.

What I did instead was modify my focus, so that I worked solely on my deliverable. All the other little things I do on the computer each day were set aside.

Also: Ultimate Hacking Keyboard: Gimmick or serious productivity tool?

That meant I took a quick glance at email and Slack. When it became clear that none of my messages were urgent, I just left them. I replied to everyone on Thursday.

I also took a look at my to-do list. All my other to-do items could hold a day or two, so I simply didn't work on them.

And, in this article, since I'm still babying my wrist, I'm using stock vendor-supplied photos, instead of my usual practice, which is shooting, and then Photoshopping, original product photography.

After a quick assessment, it became clear that I could narrow my focus to one thing only: researching and writing my deadline article.

Immediate wrist care

Next, I'd like to introduce you to a very inexpensive tool I use nearly every day to care for my wrist, not just on days when it hurts like heck: cotton wristbands.

These are soft cotton compression bands I like to wear on my mousing wrist. This set I linked to in the previous sentence contains 24 bands for about 12 bucks. I'm not thrilled with all the colors, but these are a better deal than bands that are all black.

You should definitely check with your doctor before wearing these bands, but I find that putting one on at the very onset of wrist discomfort is a big relief, and often makes my wrist feel better. I think it also prevents the carpal tunnel symptoms from getting worse, but that's just my impression. I'm wearing one now on my right wrist.

Also: What are the best ergonomic keyboards

While I use the sports bands almost every day, I use ice packs far more rarely, usually only on days when my wrist really puts up a fuss. I have a bunch of packs that I liberated from some food shipment we got as a gift. But you can certainly get a set like these to accomplish the same thing.

The package I'm showing above comes with two ice packs. I always like to have at least four to six. That's because, when actively using them, I tend to thaw them out faster than I can refreeze them. I've found that rotating among four to six gives them enough time to freeze, so I always have a frozen one I can use.

And, again, check with your doctor. This works for me, but it's best to check with a knowledgeable medical professional.

Also: The best sleep headphones: Snooze without interruptions

I also took Extra Strength Tylenol and Aleve, following the package directions. Obviously, check with your doctor before using any medication. I am neither a doctor nor do I play one on TV, so get real advice from someone with a medical clue.

Take breaks

The article I had to write wasn't all that big, roughly 1,200 words or so. Unfortunately, it was on a technical, fairly obscure topic, so it required a lot of research.

On the day my wrist was at its worst, I limited myself to just a few paragraphs at a time. I wrote or researched for about 15 minutes while wearing the sports band, then took off the band and sat for about 30 minutes with my wrist on the ice pack. I put a soft cotton towel around the ice pack, both to reduce the pain of the cold and to reduce the condensation from getting on my chair or clothes.

Also: The best silent mouse

I kept this up for 15 minutes of mousing and 30 minutes of resting practice for most of the day. At that pace, it did take most of the day to get the article complete. But my wrist didn't get any worse and, in fact, started to feel better along the way.

I try to remember that I'm not supposed to mouse or move my wrist during the break times. I keep it on that ice pack. That means no Facebook or doom scrolling during the off time.

I contented myself with watching streaming car shows on the big screen, using the heck out of my MotorTrend+ subscription.

Gear up

Finally, I decided to change gears, or at least, gear. While my mouse of choice is the Logitech MX Master 3, it's a traditional mouse. My hand fits over the mouse like a cap, my wrist twists up, and every click puts a little pressure right on the point where the flexor carpi radialis muscle meets my wrist.

Also: Logitech Easy Switch: Switching mice and keyboards between computers is so un-KVM

There is a different kind of mouse available, called a vertical mouse. It turns the mousing surface on its side. This shift causes your wrist to rotate, which means that all the normal pressure points of mousing change.

I actually had a Logitech Lift Vertical Mouse already sitting on my review shelf. Logitech had been kind enough to send me one some time ago. As soon as the wrist pain started up, I pulled the Lift off my shelf and connected it to my computer over Bluetooth.

This tool took some getting used to. First, I found myself holding my hand over the mouse rather than turning my wrist sideways. I had to concentrate to properly use the mouse. But when I did use it properly, I could feel the difference.

It definitely helped. Then I thought that if I could mouse using my left wrist from time to time, it might also reduce the load on my painful right wrist. To make this happen, I decided to add a trackpad to my input device mix.

Also: The 5 best ergonomic office chairs

Because the trackpad stays in one place, a large open space isn't required. Therefore, I could place it anywhere I wanted and have an input surface. I could alternate between using the trackpad with my left hand, and moving it in front of the keyboard to "mouse" on it with my right wrist in yet another position.

A trackpad was something I didn't have. I placed an order with Amazon and had an Apple Magic Trackpad 2 connected to my Mac Studio the very next morning. At $114 from Amazon and $129 from Apple, it's not cheap. But what price can you put on being able to do your job?

I'm also somewhat excited because the Magic Trackpad 2 has some gestures that work great with both Final Cut Pro and Autodesk Fusion 360, two programs I use regularly.

A fairly simple strategy

Overall, I have a fairly simple strategy when my wrist acts up:

  1. Stop using the mouse and give that wrist a break
  2. Use ice and compression sports bands to help reduce wrist pain
  3. Focus only on the most mission-critical activities and put everything else off
  4. When working, work only for short periods of time with longer breaks in between
  5. Find ways to change wrist angle regularly, using tools like a vertical mouse and a trackpad

By now, after a week, my wrist is all better. By the second day, the really bad pain had gone away. Today, it doesn't hurt at all. I'm still taking it a bit easy to give my wrist extra time to fully heal, but I'll be resuming a full workload this coming week.

Just remember: at the first sign of wrist pain, stop. Oh, and check with your doctor. Always check with your doctor if something hurts.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter on Substack, and follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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