I was a freshman in college when I developed chronic pain in my hands. I thought the pain was caused by using my laptop, because it started to fester when I began typing my notes in class instead of writing them by hand.

The pain increased over time.  Eventually if I just gritted through it and continued to type for, say, 30 minutes one night, it hurt to put on a T-shirt the next morning.

Over the next two years, I saw several reputable doctors and physical therapists, all of whom concluded that I had Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) from typing.

The most ergonomic keyboard ever made.  Each finger only moves a couple milmeters.

The most ergonomic keyboard ever made: each finger only moves a couple milmeters to hit every key on on a normal keyboard. And I still felt pain in my hands using it.

They said the pain should disappear if I learned to stretch and exercise my hands, took frequent enough breaks at the computer, used properly ergonomic keyboards, desks, and chairs, and sat with the right posture while using the computer.

I made each of these changes, and the pain might improve for a little while, but it always returned and got worse again.

My last keyboard was like something you’d operate a space ship with. I placed each hand into a pod of sorts, and each finger only had to move a couple of millimeters in any direction to hit every key on the keyboard. And it still hurt my hands to use it.

I’d spent two years asking and following the advice of conventional medicine, and I couldn’t find an end to my pain.  Then, a few weeks into my Junior Fall (2005), I opened a book that my mom’s friend had passed along to her for me.  It was written by a back doctor, and it said that emotions, not physical problems, were at the root of chronic pain.

I felt really stressed at the time, in almost every aspect of my life, and the book seriously resonated with me.  It was called The Mindbody Prescription, by John Sarno, an N.Y.U. Professor and physician.

Sarno theorizes that repressed emotions cause chronic pain, as well as a number of surprisingly related conditions (skin conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, drug addictions, allergies, and obsessive compulsive disorder, among many others), and he placed them all under the umbrella term of “Tension Myositis Syndrome” (TMS).

He noticed that two types of people were especially prone to developing this stress-induced condition: perfectionists and “goodists” (people who try to be good in the “good person” kind of way), because they’re so likely to put too much pressure on themselves.

I checked both boxes in a major way.

Part of putting excess pressure on yourself involves silencing the parts of you that rebel against these pressures as unnatural, inauthentic.  They’re the parts of yourself that resent how much pressure destroys your spontaneity, your gifts, your ability to enjoy living.mbp-cover

I had so internalized these pressures that I deeply feared resisting them.  I HAD to be perfect and good.  Surely, life would end, and I’d be alone and a loser, if I wasn’t, right?

Blocked in these ways, my “repressed emotions,” as Sarno would have called them, found their expression in physical pain.  My hands screamed out.

This emotion-pain connection may sound too abstract or unempirical for you to believe, so maybe you’ll want to see a biological explanation:

Tension can be experienced both in our conscious thoughts, and unconsciously. Either way, it activates the brain’s hypothalamus, which controls the autonomic nervous system; the autonomic nervous system maintains homeostasis in the body. It responds to stress with the “fight or flight” response, which alters bloodflow and hormonal patterns in ways that are appropriate for short-term threats, but are unhealthy if maintained over the longterm.

If tension lasts for a long time, so might the related circulation/hormonal changes, which can result in lasting pain or malfunctioning in one or many parts of the body.

Halfway through reading The Mindbody Prescription, I was persuaded.  My repressed emotions were causing my chronic hand pain. I was determined to unlock them, and I immediately decided to take a semester off from school.

School was a prime arena for my perfectionism, and I’d taken it to a point to where it wasn’t productive anymore.  I increasingly struggled to concentrate during class, spent hours in the library – but most of it procrastinating – and beat myself up over grades.  

Taking time off from school removed this major source of stress. I stayed on campus, though, because I didn’t want to leave my social life as well.

99% of the pain I’d felt from typing disappeared immediately. Once again, I could type on any keyboard I wanted (ergonomic keyboards immediately struck me as a bullshit idea), for as long as I wanted, in any posture I wanted, without having done hand exercises or stretches…and feel no pain.

I was shocked.  The connection between mind and body now blew me away.  Other health conditions disappeared immediately as well, such as minor knee, abdominal, and shoulder pain.

The book reminded me how important it was to be loyal and true to myself, not the pressure of others’ expectations.  I made major gains in my physical health, and I noticed that I was remarkably more healthy psychologically as well. I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t entirely happy with my living situation and switched to a new group of roommates that felt like a better fit. I had my first lasting girlfriend, and I felt noticeably better about relationships with friends and family than I had in a really long time.

John E. Sarno developed his idea that emotions, not physical problems, were at the root of many chronic health conditions, over more than five decades of medical work and experience.

Dr. John E. Sarno spent over two decades as a traditional back doctor before developing his idea that emotions, not physical problems, were at the root of many chronic health conditions.

I was eager to return to school the following Fall, and each year since reading The Mindbody Prescription has felt more fun, productive, healthy and relaxed than the one before. I’ve certainly had and still have my ups and downs, and I do still face the same fundamental pressures and insecurities that had me reading Sarno’s book in the first place.

But I’ve been lucky to be exposed to the fascinating connection between stress and both physical and emotional health, and ideas relating to it have been bumbling around in my head ever since.  Learning to relate to our thoughts and emotions strikes me as a skill that could benefit all of humanity, sometimes in profound and life/society-changing ways.

I’m just thankful Dr. Sarno got me steered in a better direction as early in my life, and experience with chronic pain, as he did.

4 Responses to “My Experience with Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI)”

  1. Matt Pain said

    Wow! Thank you. That’s a beautifully described story that resonates deeply.

  2. I too made this discovery from Sarno and Scott Brady after suffering 10 months from hand pain. I am still in the recovery phase but I can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks for your article!

  3. Anne Miller said

    Really well said, and I can so relate. I have suffered with fibromyalgia for 10-15 years, the last five having been pretty debilitating. I am getting in touch with my feelings and anger. I told my husband, a few moments ago, that I resented spending so much time doing menial tasks (dishes, etc.), and wanted to spend more time doing something worthwhile. He said, “but isn’t that life?” I agreed, but explained to him that I can still resent it and work toward simplying our lives (smaller house, no yard, etc.) I am very early in recovery but can see the light (just barely) at the end of the tunnel.

  4. Anne Miller said

    This morning, my hands hurt. They really burned and ached. My plan for the day was to get each room back in order (important to us perfectionists) and get some laundry done. I wanted to enlist my husband’s help (I usually don’t, and in fact have hired help to get this done, can you believe it). Wow, I really do avoid conflict. I have asked and asked for help but he doesn’t get it. Well, I acknowledged my anger and frustration. It’s not like we can afford help. So I talked to him about it and now I am following through on requesting his help. May not be good at it at first but will persist. Being a martyr sure doesn’t help any of us.

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