How I fixed my chronic pain by changing my developer habits

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As developer’s we have a few proverbial health issues: wrists pain from typing so much, being exhausted from sitting all day, alongside back and shoulder pain. All these health problems have a root cause: overtaxed muscles that are too weak.

One year ago I didn’t have any of these routines. I used a bad keyboard, sat for hours on end, and didn’t do any excessive for months on end. At some point, I had chronic pain in my back, shoulder, and butt. My fingers hurt, and my wrist had pangs of pain many times a day.

Fast-forward to today and I’m pain-free. I’m not in constant worry about my fingers anymore. I’m more productive as a result and less stressed and anxious.

Weak muscles are causing you pain

I’m in front of a screen from 8 to 12 hours a day between work at my desk and leisure at my phone or TV. We use our screens for different things, but while our mind is busy, our body is not.

A desk job uses the smallest muscles the most: our forearms and fingers, and the biggest ones the least: our butt, legs, and back. An unused muscle becomes weak, and a weak muscle can’t do its job, causing pain. Whether it’s a big or small muscle, the result is the same.

Keeping your muscles in shape corrects these issues and will easy and remove pain.

Stretch or exercise multiple times a day

Stretching helps to keep your body in shape. It increases blood flow,
reduces inflammation, and prevents muscles from weakening or shrinking, which happens when they’re not used for long periods. It also releases feel-good hormones, increasing your energy.

Exercising is even healthier, but it’s easier to create a habit of stretching and then level it up to exercise. Make sure to learn how to do each stretch and exercise correctly to avoid injuries.

We’re not talking about gym-level exercise. Almost anything that requires some strength will keep your muscles healthy. The point is to keep them from weakening to the point they can’t do their job, and cause pain.

Aim to strengthen the biggest muscles in your body first: your legs, butt and back; while making the smaller ones flexible: your hands and fingers.

My routine of timely breaks

I use the TimeOut app to remind me every 30 minutes to take a 5 minutes break. I use it to stand up, stretch, exercise, talk to my family, or simply close my eyes and breathe.

During breaks, I like touching my toes and stretching my fingers/forearms a few times a day. Sometimes just squatting for 2 minutes while I check my phone, doing some pull-ups, or walking around the house is all I need to relax before continuing to work. The most important thing is to simply stand up from my desk.

Perhaps the best habit I’ve developed is to always do some exercise before showering, no matter how fast or how small.

Use the right keyboard

In 2019, I had intense wrist and finger pain issues likely caused by RSI (repetitive strain injury). It was scary because my hands are my livelihood. I’ve had similar issues for years that lasted a few days or weeks, but this time it wouldn’t go away.

So I bought the most ergonomic keyboard I found: the ErgodoxEz. My wrist pain went away within a month. I also learned how to take control of my workflow, and not use an archaic keyboard layout created in 1873.

My ErgodoxEz layout that lets me use many shortcuts easily
My ErgodoxEz keyboard showing my extensively configured layout

You don’t need an expensive keyboard. The important parts are:

  • A mechanical keyboard: by having longer travel, they soften the blow your fingers and joints suffer when pressing the keys.
  • Learn how to touch-type: Touch-typing means leaving your fingers in the home row—where that little bump in the F and J are—and moving your fingers up or down to press other keys. This eliminates many of the bad habits we have when typing, like using only 2 fingers to type.
  • Change from QWERTY layout: If you’re serious about your finger’s health consider switching to a more ergonomic layout. The QWERTY layout simply isn’t ergonomic. I personally use Workman.

Make your keyboard fit your needs

I have a very personalized keyboard that fits my needs. With over 50 custom shortcuts spread over many combinations, I no longer have to twist my fingers to execute hard commands. Even for common keys such as Shift or Delete, I’ve moved them to be used by stronger fingers instead of the pinky.

Your keyboard should be unique to you. Why are we using a standard, badly designed one?

You can achieve such freedom too with free apps such as Karabiner-Elements and any keyboard. This video by Egghead’s co-founder is enlightening: shows here

Other important routines

In no particular order:

  • Drink lots of water: whenever I don’t drink enough, I’m exhausted the next day.
  • Sleep enough: everyone needs different amounts of sleep, try to get the amount you need, when you need it.
  • Get enough sun: most people in the Northern hemisphere have a vitamin D deficiency, and programmers probably even more. Get some sun in your breaks if you can.
  • Use a good chair: it doesn’t have to be an expensive one. We spend a lot of time sitting down.
  • Use good posture when sitting down: don’t twist your body in any way. Sit straight, look forward. Working on laptops all the time tends to cause neck strain.
  • Work standing up if you can: no need for a standing desk, move your laptop somewhere high. This counts as exercise if done for long enough.
  • Take deep breaths: meditation is great, but just closing your eyes and taking a deep breath from time to time gives similar benefits.
  • Self-reflect on what can be improved: think about what routines you can improve to make your body and mind healthier. Sometimes small changes have big returns.

Don’t wait until it’s too late

What habits and routines you need may be different from mine, but take care of yourself. As developers, we tend to think our brain is the only thing that matters. In reality our body is as important. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start paying attention to it.

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August 18th, 2021
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