RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) often first appears as pain which relates to a specific task - for example, computer use. It is tempting to conclude that the reason for the pain is the task or tool which is being used. The dysfunction may also become generalised to all tasks of a similar nature, or even to all movements of a particular limb. Changing the ergonomics of the initial situation (eg desk chair), or avoiding the task, may offer relief in the short term, but may leave an insidious problem unchecked.
I propose that the root of RSI symptoms is not in the tools we use, or the task we undertake. Rather, it is in the way we use the tool, or the way we undertake a task. In other words, the way we use ourselves. This powerful change in paradigm gives us scope for managing the condition whilst still engaging in the work we have invested in. Humans have a remarkable capacity for change, but also a remarkable tenacity to persist with habit - even when faced with evidence that the habit is the cause of pain.
If we reframe Repetitive Strain Injury into Persistent Misuse Practice, we begin to unpack some aspects of the issue. Rather than considering oneself as the victim of an injury or as a casualty of the digital era, to view the problem as the practice of misuse presents the immediate inclination to desist with such practice. Instead of considering the repetition as something inevitable one has to endure, to admit that persistence of the habit is a choice empowers the individual and inspires an active retraining.
The profound shift is in taking the issue from environmental to personal. We have a limited influence on the situations around us - the tools we use and tasks undertaken. There is however, immense scope for change within oneself. To acknowledge this is to take responsibility for one’s own responses and attitudes. This paradigm shift points to an elegant solution to the RSI issue, and orients us towards ongoing positive engagement in all spheres of life.
A Holistic Approach
The approach Alexander Technique takes to resolving localised pain is to address the generalised condition. If we make the presumption that our hand and wrist alone are causing problems, then it is tempting to only try changing the use of hand and wrist. However, limbs can only function in relationship to the whole body. The support for hands and wrist comes from forearm, upper arm and then shoulder. The shoulder can buoy up the arm most effectively when it is has balance of suspensory musculature on the torso. In turn, this sling requires an upright spine which furthermore requires the head to be oriented away from the tail, and the legs to be supportive.
To improve the general condition of one’s coordination is the starting point from which an Alexander Technique education begins. Releasing the head on top of the spine, availing length through the torso, promoting width between the shoulders - these are some of the prerequisites which must be attended to in order to create the optimal conditions for the use of the hand and wrist.
Only once the central coordination is functioning well is it appropriate to address the peripheral coordination. Working from the general through to the specific, one starts with coordination and then moves on to the more specific movements in question. The Alexander Technique teacher will train the student in creating a thinking framework which stimulates a positive orientation of the whole person; mind and body, then one which addresses the task at hand.
Improving general conditions invariably reduces the effect of RSI symptoms, often completely removing them. The conditions which gave rise to the symptoms in the first place are no longer going to present as viable choices, thereby diminishing the probability of ongoing issues.
Thinking in Activity
The particulars of the thinking process which brings about this optimal condition are multifarious and varied. They are distinctive to each individual since they will address the physical and psychological conditions present. An integral part of that is the historical, or habitual, way in which the student has used him or herself.
Typically, one starts with retraining the coordination out of the context of the provocative stimulus. It is a hallmark of Alexander Technique though, that the teacher will work with the student on the application of the newly acquired coordination to daily tasks, and in particular, the tasks which have been most problematic. The key to making this step from the teaching studio to the real world is developing the skill to create and maintain the directions to the self, whilst simultaneous undertaking a task.
This may seem overwhelming at first, however the coordination FM Alexander taught was not something of his own invention. His genius was in his development of a technique to regain an innate coordination which has been obscured. As the teacher guides the student through movement, the bodily system recognises that there are other ways of moving than the familiar, RSI inducing habit. The state which we are training is something quite natural and is a relief to the body to be reunited with.
Verbal instructions from the teacher give the student a framework of directions which he or she will associate with the new coordination, and use to further the skill in independently recreating positive change.
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