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How to Address and Prevent Repetitive Strain Injuries of the Body and Eyes

by Meir Schneider and Melissa Moody(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 123 - May 2006

Today, terms like 'computer vision syndrome', 'carpal tunnel syndrome' and 'repetitive strain injuries' are commonly used when discussing all-too-familiar conditions. In particular, more and more people suffer from repetitive strain. Meir Schneider PhD LMT founder of the School for Self-Healing in San Francisco, believes Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and degenerative illnesses occur because of our current lifestyle choices and imbalanced use of our bodies.

Stagnation Leads to Suffering

So many people lead sedentary lives. We sit in offices, living rooms, cars and airplanes. We stare at televisions, computers or PDAs all day long. The body is stiff, rigid and unfeeling – a result of our limited, stereotyped movement patterns. Little by little, joints and muscles degenerate and eyesight deteriorates. At the computer, we tend to ignore the periphery until it shrinks, and our central vision becomes strained. We sit at the computer with hunched, rounded shoulders and a forward head. Blackberry and Palm Pilot users' movement patterns cause thumb and finger pain, cramps, numbness and loss of flexibility. Many who wear bifocals tilt the head upward to aim the bifocal inserts at the screen. Ergonomics are often terrible. Worst of all, we suppress the pain that results from hours of eyestrain and bad posture. But RSIs are not limited to the office. Artists, carpenters, massage therapists, nurses, scientists and others are also subject to this common affliction.

Why? RSIs are also known as overuse or cumulative trauma syndromes, and they are caused by a myriad of actions performed during daily work and leisure activities. The inflammation, numbness, pain, fatigue and loss of mobility inherent to these disorders begin when we perform repetitive tasks, day after day, with muscles that are already habitually tensed up. Most people have strained, unbalanced movement patterns; it goes with the culture. The anxiety, irritation and anger of chronic stress create muscular tension which, unless it is fully released, accumulates until some areas of the body are virtually immobile. These tight muscles diminish circulation and may compress nerves. Nerve compression may be experienced when inflamed, swollen tendons impinge on nearby nerves.

Muscles that are chronically tight may 'work in packs'. For example, as we write, we unnecessarily tense up the jaw, neck, shoulders, and even the chest and abdomen, and we press hard with the pen as if making an engraving. While a few muscles are unnecessarily recruited and over-worked, many others are under-worked, creating unbalanced forces around joints and eventually damaging them. RSIs and degenerative conditions are diseases of stagnation – of chronic postural rigidities and imbalanced use.

Movement is Life

So how do we avoid those dry achy eyes, stiff neck and back and cramping fingers? Meir believes that movement is life; balanced movement is essential for both treating and preventing RSIs. Become more alive and conscious of your body and eyes. And move. Repetitive tasks are often necessary, but of the body's 600 muscles, we normally use about 50 for everything we do – over and over and over. Muscular tension builds up in some areas until they are numb and immobile. Connective tissue slowly hardens, causing joint spaces to shrink. Pain and stiffness sets in. Little by little, without noticing it, more and more areas of the body become rigid and numb. The experience, the memory, even the concept of movement in those frozen places disappears. And most are unaware of this change until symptoms appear and we wonder how it happened.

We need to develop kinaesthetic awareness, sensing the subtle movements of the body and whether tissue is relaxed or tense. We need to use muscles that we normally do not use, and learn how to isolate the muscle groups in order to release chronically overused muscles, prevent over-recruitment and enhance circulation. Mindful movement allows muscles to work in better balance, strengthening the whole body and alleviating stress and strain. This is one of the foundation principles of Meir Schneider's profound method of Self-Healing.

Back Pain – an Unnecessary Epidemic?

Back pain is in epidemic proportion worldwide, and it is one disorder we can effectively prevent or eliminate through kinesthetic awareness. When we sit on chairs, we often contract the lower abdominal muscles without noticing, and forward movement is limited. Our body is not designed to sit for long periods, and when we do, we put our backs under tremendous tension and strain. After 20 minutes of sitting without moving, specialized muscles designed to help the back to maintain this position turn off, and other muscles contract to compensate and support the spine. The strain and over-contraction of these muscles over time can cause back problems.

In our work with the back, we discovered that what one does on a daily basis makes a big difference in the ability to function well using the back. Become aware of how your life limits your movement. How do you sit: with hunched, rounded shoulders and a forward head? Slouching tenses the neck, sitting tenses the back. There is no way to avoid sitting, as it is a part of daily life. But we can compensate. Move in your chair. Take breaks – stand up and walk around your desk. No one should suffer from back pain. Meir believes the only reason for suffering from back pain is poor back use. When most people exercise, they tend to walk or run forward only, but, here at the School for Self-Healing, we practise running and walking backward and sideways, too. This varied direction of motion activates muscles in the back we normally don't use. Also, whenever possible, we exercise barefoot on the sand to use our toes and to develop good calf and shin muscles. Strengthening the toes and calves relieves pressure on the knees and hips, which reduces the risk of joint deterioration caused by imbalanced movement and over-contracting these areas.

The Amazing, Interconnected Body

Most of us do not realize how much tension, and equally release, in one part of the body can affect another. Quite often, Meir teaches paraplegics to crawl as a strategy toward liberating them from the wheelchair. But often their arms hurt and are tense, and must first be released and relaxed before the person can crawl or before they can walk with a walker when the time comes for them to do so. Even those who sit in the wheelchair do better with their legs after their arms are loosened. One client, ill with multiple sclerosis and unable to walk for 12 years, came to Meir because she had lost the ability to write. Her back had become stiff. When Meir loosened her back, she was able to write again, as if she had never had a problem! Most of us don't realize how much our legs and shoulders are involved with our hands. Walking and running backward, as well as moving each shoulder in a rotating motion in both directions can help alleviate strain and tension in the hands.

Notice when you type or write, hold a paintbrush or grip a hammer: Is it just the hand that is working, or is it the entire arm, shoulder, chest, upper back, neck, and maybe even the abdomen and face as well? All of these muscles may be acting together as a big, insensate block. Recruitment of unnecessary muscles is common, and the results include fatigue, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Try this: Open and close the fingers of one hand, focusing on your fingertips, as you tap on the forearm with your other hand. Next, rotate your forearm in both directions, and then rotate your shoulder in both directions. Open your mouth as wide as you can, close it, and gently move your jaw from side to side. Rotate your head in both directions. Now open and close your fingers again and notice if they are looser. Repeat with the other hand and arm.

Listen to Your Body

Most human movement is goal-oriented. Seeing the body as a tool, we actively shut out the sense of its needs for movement. We practise altogether too much angular, jerky movement in the sagittal (forward/backward) plane, leading to wear-and-tear and overuse problems. What is missing is the fluidity of circular movements that take us through many planes. Our body is designed to flex, extend, move laterally and rotate. Think about it; How do you move? Movement can actually regenerate the body. Revitalizing movement includes visualization, breathing exercises, eye exercises, relaxation techniques and all other methods that develop kinesthetic awareness. This mindful movement breaks up patterns that freeze the body. Massage, self-massage and movement, equally emphasized, make a powerful combination to promote and create health and mobility.

Computers: Reducing the Impact of a Necessary Hazard

Working at the computer strains the face, the eyes and the body. Many people believe in ergonomics as a solution for computer-related problems. While sitting differently at the desk can be helpful, standing and moving, standing and stretching the legs backward, and standing and walking backward occasionally, are even more effective. While working, try breathing deeply from time to time. Most people don't realize that when we are concentrating, whether in front of a computer, writing a business proposal, or just deep in thought, there is a tendency to breathe shallowly or hardly breathe at all.

Computers are here to stay, but they needn't disrupt health or cause RSIs of the eyes or body. It is how we use the computer that is the problem. Improper use causes Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), which afflicts millions. Symptoms include eyestrain, general fatigue, headache, neck and shoulder pain, dry eyes and difficulties with focusing the eyes. The visual stress of computer use tends to bring on nearsightedness or make it worse; it can also worsen farsightedness. Like carpal tunnel, CVS is a repetitive strain syndrome. The strained muscle is the ciliary, a small muscle within the eye that changes the shape of the lens to determine the focus. The brain tells the ciliary to set up the focus for a given distance – 16 inches, for example. To figure out that the page you're reading is 16 inches away from your eyes, the brain analyzes the edges and spaces of the letters. Unfortunately, there are no definite edges and spaces on a computer screen. There are only pixels – tiny, fuzzy gray dots. Bereft of essential clues, the brain endlessly searches for a focal length. As we look at the screen, the ciliary muscles are on the move every moment, making tiny changes, looking for a focal point that can never be found. This is equivalent to exercising our biceps by quivering them through an inch or so of their range for hours on end, rather than doing biceps curls through the full range of movement for a few minutes. The strain on the ciliary muscles after hours at the computer is like the strain on the heart after running a marathon.

It is the manner with which we use the computer that causes most of the eyestrain; the computer itself is a small contributor. The effort to focus on an ever-changing screen, no matter how subtle the changes are, is exhausting and stressful to the eyes. To recover from and eliminate eyestrain, it is critical to learn how to rest the eyes while using the computer, how to pay attention to peripheral vision and how to frequently look briefly far into the distance. Without healthy eye habits, the cumulative effects of computer use can be devastating.

A Living Miracle, Leading by Example

Meir Schneider's work with vision problems is very special; he has experienced the plasticity and healing potential of the visual system in his own life. Born with cataracts, glaucoma, nystagmus (involuntary rapid movement of the eye) and small corneas, he underwent several unsuccessful surgeries as a child that shattered his lens and left them permanently scarred. Declared permanently blind, he functioned through Braille until the age of 17, when he began eye exercises based on the work of ophthalmologist William Bates. To this regimen he added self-massage and movement exercises and practised them diligently, sometimes up to 13 hours a day. After six months, he could recognize some visual objects for the first time in his life; within 18 months, he could read print. His vision continued to improve. Today he holds an unrestricted driver's license and reads and writes without glasses.

Develop awareness of the eyes. In Meir's opinion, blocking the messages from our eyes is the first step toward degenerative eye problems. We often work our eyes to a point of tremendous strain, but do not stop even when the body gives us many signals that we should rest. Sometimes a five minutes rest in the middle of work can greatly improve performance and productivity. Acknowledge that sitting in front of a computer is not natural and, every 10 minutes, briefly look away from the screen. Every hour, get up and walk, even if it is for only a couple of minutes. Breathe and blink. Lightly massage your face, and palm for 60 seconds. It can make a huge difference.

Computer Survival Tips

To stay alive and well at the computer, we suggest the following:
Change positions in your chair often;
Every 30 minutes for 30 seconds move away from the chair and stretch the leg backward, with your toes off the ground. Grasp your ankle from the back and stretch your leg;
Every hour take a five-minute break for these exercises:
Wiggles and Circles – See how many ways you can wiggle and undulate your back. Make a few big, smooth circles with each arm, imagining that your fingertips are leading the motion. Rotate your arms, forearms and hands in both directions. Move your head slowly in a circle, in both directions;
Blink – Blinking is nature's way of lubricating the eyes. Most computer users and people who are nearsighted do not blink frequently enough. While working at the computer, try to remember to blink;
Waggle your hands at both sides of your face to stimulate peripheral vision, then keep that awareness as you work;
Palming – Sit comfortably with elbows supported, warm your hands by rubbing them together, lightly cover your eyes with them, breathe deeply and visualize blackness – an ocean at night, a black object moving on a black background, a dark cave, etc. This exercise rests the optic nerve and the muscles of the eye and relaxes the nervous system;
Flexible Focusing – Walk over to the window, breathe deeply, and spend a few minutes looking into the far distance; notice how restful it feels. Then let your eyes sweep back to nearby objects, then back into the distance again;
Deep Tissue Massage – At lunch take a moment to stand with your back to a wall and place two used tennis balls on either side of the spine, close to but not touching the vertebrae. Bend your knees and move up and down the wall, pressing on the tennis balls. This provides deep tissue massage to release tight muscles;
Movements for Flexible Spine – In the morning and at night face the wall with arms outstretched and hands against the wall, feet slightly apart. Move the lower back forwards and backwards, in and out. Curve your stomach inwards, curve it outwards, by stretching and arching the lower back. Do it back and forth, then move the middle back in the same way (Did you know you have a middle back? Think rib cage and diaphragm area.) Then move the upper back forward and backward. Over time you will notice the spine becoming more flexible;
Combat Carpal Tunnel – Rest your right forearm on a table, and relax your right hand as completely as possible while you grasp a fingertip and passively rotate it in both directions with your other hand. Do each finger and thumb and then do the same with each joint on each finger. Now, bend your elbow and support it on the table or desk. Grasp your right hand just under the wrist with your left hand and let the right hand rotate slowly in as big a circle as you can make without tensing the arm. Keep the right hand and fingers completely relaxed, and let the wrist do the work alone. Now, with your elbow bent and supported on the table, move the entire forearm in a big circle in both directions with your arm, wrist and hand relaxed. Let the fingers lead the motion. Repeat several times. Drop you right hand into your lap, and move your shoulder in a circle in both directions, thinking of the shoulder tip as the access of rotation. Be sure your shoulder is not hunched, but dropped. With the fingertips of the left hand, gently tap on your right hand, arm and shoulder. Gently massage and squeeze, too. Notice how your right hand, arm and shoulder feel. Are they lighter? Easier to move? Now do the same to the left hand, arm and shoulder.

These simple, everyday exercises, as well as constant kinaesthetic awareness, are the keys to preventing RSIs to the body and eyes. Today's working world demands that much of our time be spent in a stagnant position, but by raising our consciousness of the movements our body needs, we can play an active part in maintaining optimal health.


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About Meir Schneider and Melissa Moody

Meir Schneider PhD LMT International Health Educator, Pioneer Therapist and Founder of San Francisco's non-profit School for Self-Healing, is author of The Natural Vision Improvement Kit, Movement for Self-Healing, The Handbook of Self-Healing, and Yoga for the Eyes. Born in Lvov, Ukraine, in 1954, Meir emigrated to Israel with his parents in 1959. He underwent five cataract operations without success and at seven was declared legally blind. Years later, by means of eye exercises and movement therapy, he was able to read without glasses and began to work with other physically disabled people, receiving national attention for his work in the healing arts.

Melissa Moody is Director of the School for Self-Healing and a practitioner of the Meir Schneider Method of Self-Healing Through Bodywork and Movement. She may be contacted via;


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