Posted on May 17, 2016
How to Prevent Mouse Elbow
After a marathon coding session or a really intense game of World of Warcraft, it’s not uncommon to come out of the fog to slowly discover an aching pain in your wrist or elbow. The typical computer geek will likely brush this pain off as something that comes with the territory. After all, you’re not truly a computer aficionado until you’ve put in some sweat and pain, right?
This is absolutely, 100%, the wrong response and, in my opinion, part of what makes repetitive stress injuries (RSI) so insidious. What might start as a dull ache or pain can morph into a career ending injury if one isn’t careful. I’ve already written extensively about how to use a mouse properly and the best ergonomic mouse on the market. The best method for avoiding mouse elbow is to never get it in the first place, and these two items will go a long way in reducing the likelihood of developing such an injury. Today, however, I’m going to talk about mitigation strategies for one of the most common injuries encountered from improper mouse usage, mouse elbow.
What is Mouse Elbow?
Mouse elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis) is a repetitive stress injury typically felt in the forearm and elbow. It is caused by inflammation of the tendons that join the forearm muscles with the elbow, and most commonly the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis (ECRB):
The ECRB is critical for stabilizing the wrist and serves as an extensor and abductor of the hand. Recall that poor mousing can put your wrist in both extension and abduction (AKA radial deviation):
Interestingly, mouse elbow is the exact same form of tendonitis often referred to as “tennis elbow” and, to some degree, the same muscles that can be strained by the motion of a tennis racquet can be strained by mouse usage. In short, “mouse elbow” is actually caused by poor mousing habits in both the arm and wrist.
How to Heal Mouse Elbow
First and foremost, stop. Just stop.
Stop doing the thing that hurts. Go on a walk. Take some photos. Breathe in the great outdoors. Do something other than the motion that is causing the pain. I realize that this is often easier said than done. Many of us who are chained to a desk all day may find it difficult to get away from the office.
In that case, try mixing it up. Try a trackpad if you are using a traditional mouse. Try standing instead of sitting, which might alter your mousing habits to some degree. If you are somewhat ambidextrous, you might try mousing with your left arm for while (though be careful to maintain good form).
The bottom line: if you don’t find a way to change your habits, your mouse elbow will never heal.
Apply ice for 15-20 minutes at a time. I have often found that freezing several cups of water in advance works well. You can peel away the top layer of the cup, and use the ice as a sort of massage tool simultaneously:
Ice acts to reduce swelling and is particularly valuable within the first 48 hours of injury.
Stretching can improve mobility over time and, in some cases, promote healing. It is important to not over do it with stretching initially. In fact, within the first 48 hours, stretching may actually cause more harm than good. Tendonitis is basically a number of small microtears in the tendon and aggressive stretching can inflame the tendon further — bad news.
After the first 40 hours, try out wrist stretches that work to counteract the tight muscle and/or tendon injury. For instance, in order to stretch the ECRB, you would actually want to put the wrist in flexion:
I prefer to do the strech above wile also looking over the opposite shoulder. For instance, if stretching the right wrist, then look over your left shoulder, and turn your torso such that you feel a stretch in the arm flexors, all the way up the arm to your pec as well.
If the Pain Doesn’t Go Away…
Then, unfortunately it’s time to see a doctor. Tendonitis and RSI injuries can be a real pain the arse. A doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory (likely NSAIDs) or, in serious cases, may recommend surgery.
All the more reason to avoid mouse elbow altogether by keeping an eye on your ergonomics from the start! Remember, it is always easier to prevent an RSI injury than to rehab one that has always developed.
Are you dealing with an RSI injury? What approaches have worked well for you?