HOW CAN you avoid Repetitive Strain Injury? The March meeting of London Freelance Branch heard from Stephen Fisher of RSI Action ( In 2002, at his desk in an engineering office at British Aerospace, he felt "a stroke of lightning" on the back of his hand. Instantly, he could no longer do his job - not use the keyboard any more, particularly not the computer mouse - nor drive to work nor put on his own coat.

RSI can be caused by repetitive action - especially clicking on a mouse or using a touchpad. It's not the repetition rate: tensing your muscles is to blame. (It's been suggested that its incidence is higher among people who care - and get stressed - about their work and deadlines than among workers who have to do so many thousand clicks a day.)

Many doctors try to avoid talking about RSI - they'll look at your wrists for "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome", which RSI Action calls "type 1" while it campaigns to get recognition of "type 2" diffuse RSI, with a wide range of symptoms around the upper body. So what can you do about it? Posture, posture and sit comfortably! You could look at rotated keyboards or at using a graphic tablet instead of a mouse. You may need voice recognition software to avoid typing - is what Stephen recommends.

If you have tingling, numbness or an ache, take action now: don't wait for the bolt of lightning.

Carol Lee described how the Alexander Technique (see had showed her how to be at ease with her own body. It seeks to help you find relaxed stances or positions. Forget the popular misconception of forcing a straight back and throwing your shoulders back: find your minimum-effort position.

Mike Holderness told the meeting that "probably the only reason I don't have RSI is that I don't own a mouse." The key is keyboard shortcuts. Many members at the meeting were surprised to hear how many of these there are, and asked for a guide. So here is a start.

Say you're editing a photo caption and you want to move a word. Hold down the control and shift keys at the same time and hit the right arrow key: the whole word gets selected with one keystroke, ready to hit Ctrl-X (or Command-X on a Mac) to cut it out. Hit Ctrl-Right and the cursor moves after the next word: Ctrl-V pastes it in right there where you want it.

These shortcuts work even where they're not advertised in the program's menus - for example when you're typing in a file name, or on a Mac.

Moving around and marking text

There are two simple rules to remember: holding down Ctrl while you hit an arrow key does the same movement, but more so; and holding down the Shift key while moving around with the cursor keys marks the text you "move over", ready to cut or copy. So we have:

The following work in a few programs on the Mac, but not, for example, Word. We're trying to complete the list of what does work, soon.
Ctrl-right move one word to the right
Shift-Ctrl-right mark one word to the right
Ctrl-left move one word to the left
Shift-Ctrl-left mark one word to the left
Ctrl-up move to beginning of paragraph *
Shift-Ctrl-up mark to beginning of paragraph *
Ctrl-down move to end of paragraph *
Shift-Ctrl-down mark to end of paragraph *

* NOTE: Annoyingly, the effects of Ctrl-up, Ctrl-down and so on vary between programs: they often go to the beginning or end of a paragraph. Try them. If you don't like what happens, hit Ctrl-Z (Command-Z on you-know-what) to undo it.

Cutting, copying, pasting...

Now you have some text marked, you want to do something with it... On a computer running Windows or Linux you hold down the Ctrl key and hit one of the following letters. On a Mac you use the "Command" key - Cmd for short - that's the one with an image of an apple on it.

Ctrl/Cmd plus: does...
C Copies text to the "clipboard"
X Cuts text out and puts it in the "clipboard"
V Inserts text from the "clipboard" where the cursor is
Z Undoes what you last did

Swapping programs - the ‘boss key’

Hold down the key labelled Alt and hit the tab key (labelled with a picture: Tab icon). A window pops up with an icon for each of the programs you're running.

Still holding down the key labelled Alt, hit the tab Tab icon key again. A different program icon is selected.

Repeat. Let go of the Alt key. Your computer switches to the program that you selected.

This is called the "boss key" because when you're working in an office you may find the boss coming up behind you while you're playing Solitare waiting for inspiration to strike, or reading your personal email. Hit Alt-tab and you instantly switch back to the boss's work.

Playing Solitare with a mouse or touchpad is terrible for straining your tendons, though. So don't do that, then.

Ctrl-Tab does the same sort of thing, instead swapping between windows in the one program - between word-processor documents, or between different web pages opened in "tabs" in the same browser program. Try it and see where it works for you.

Commands and menus

You can do loads more without taking your hands off the keyboard. Some shorcuts that work (almost) everywhere are:

Ctrl/Cmd plus: does...
P Print this
S Save this document
O Open a new document
A select All in the current window
F Find text
W close this Window *

* Note: I've not checked whether this works in any Mac program except the Firefox browser.

On a Windows computer, you can do far more.Hold down the key labelled Alt and hit "F" - the File menu pops up, and each of the options in it should have one letter underlined. Hit that letter, and that menu option is carried out.

If the programmer was sloppy and didn't do the underlining, try the first letter of the option's text.

The only way to make full use of this feature is to explore it and see what happens. Here are a few examples, though:

First... then...does...
Alt-F A save As - make new copy
Alt-E S paste Special - for example, when pasting from a web page use Alt-E,S then select "unformatted" in the menu that appears.
Alt-O F format Font for selected text (in Word)
Alt-O P format current Paragraph (in Word)

If you can't remember the key combination, you can hit Alt-F to bring up the File menu, then use the cursor arrow keys to move around the menus, then hit the enter key Enter icon to select the highlighted menu option.

Web pages and forms

If the cursor is in a form - whether on a web page, the form to enter a password, or the form to select a file to open - the tab Tab icon key moves from one "field" to the next.

If you're looking at a web page which is not a form, the tab Tab icon key moves from one "link" to the next and the enter key Enter icon follows the current link (the one with the dotted line around it).

In either case, Shift-tab moves backward.

Do not attempt to learn these keyboard shortcuts all at once: that could increase your stress. Play with a few when you have an idle moment - instead of playing Solitare. You will find that when they come naturally they reduce stress, because you no longer have to shift your attention from the stream of keystrokes to the visual/spatial task of using a mouse - editing becomes one continuous, intuitive process.

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