Transcribing is fun. I loved every minute of it. Sometimes I indeed get crappy audio recordings, but it’s a part of the job that I have to tackle. It’s September now, so it’s been a year since I decided to become a full-time freelancer. All of that nearly came to a halt when I started suffering from muscle spasms and numbing pains on my wrists. There was a non-stop avalanche of transcription work from Spring 2019 to Fall 2019. I barely had the time to rest. Of course, I am grateful for all of these projects. But I forgot that I have to protect my hands too because they’re my money-makers.
I should have known that transcribing & carpal tunnel syndrome may well go hand-in-hand in this line of work. It’s not that I don’t know of it or wasn’t aware of the causes. By July 2019, I started to get stiff wrist and spasms, especially on both of my abductor and flexor pollicis brevis—that’s in the thumb. This stiffness sometimes also occurs on the abductor digiti minimi and flexor digiti minimi brevis too.
My complete list of symptoms includes muscle stiffness, some weird tingling sensations, sharp pain, and sometimes numbness. The symptoms began to escalate every hour I spent typing, but I couldn’t stop. I had deadlines to meet and commitments to clients. This is where you can call me that I’m being silly.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or Repetitive Strain Injury?
If you search ‘carpal tunnel syndrome’ in Google, you’ll get loads of results. I am not a stranger to carpal tunnel syndrome because it’s been talked amongst my archaeology ex-colleagues because we are performing a repetitive movement with our hands in the field and on the lab. NHS UK described carpal tunnel syndrome as:
Funny enough, not many transcribing services talk about keywords combination of ‘transcribing’ and ‘carpal tunnel syndrome’. I only found one relevant article about it.
I am blessed to have a mother who’s a trained medical doctor. Based on the pain description I made, she checked on my wrists and told me that it’s quite possibly not carpal tunnel syndrome, yet, but a repetitive strain injury. Her prescription consisted of working style adjustments and home remedy to help elevate or decrease the pain. I couldn’t agree more—I avoid hospitals as much as I can, so I’ll go with some home remedy. Now, what are the easiest applicable steps to ease the pain?
1. Taking frequent breaks
After spending a lot of selected reading, I found out that carpal tunnel syndrome may or may not end up with a surgery. Since my mother diagnosed me with only repetitive strain injury, I feel a little bit lucky, but I can’t skip on starting a treatment or forms of treatments. My mother insisted me to take frequent breaks every 15-20 minutes of typing. That’s her first advice. The second one, “Don’t forget to do some stretching!”
2. Stretching or yoga routine
What I like to do on my breaks is a variation of wrist yoga/stretches or soaking my hand in semi-hot water. No, not warm, not lukewarm—more to the hot scale than warm. Of course, nothing uncomfortable for the skin. As for wrist yoga, I turn to YouTube, of course, where I found this super yogi, Ashton August, who has a short video on how to do wrist yoga. She’s one of my favourite YouTube yoga instructors because her routines are no-fuss and not causing any (additional) pain to my body.
3. Invest in an ergonomic keyboard & chair
I took an extra step by changing my keyboard to an ergonomic one: Microsoft Sculpt—recommended by a dear friend of mine who also uses computer frequently. It ain’t cheap, dude & dudettes. It ain’t. I saved up for a couple of months, and I was able to score Microsoft Sculpt through bhinneka.com and had to train my hand muscle to memorise the new layout of the keyboard.
Transcribing and training my muscle memory new tricks prove to be not easy. But I find that this ergonomic keyboard is worth the price and the time to train my hands while transcribing. 100% recommended. Trust me, it’s a good thing to invest on an ergonomic keyboard. Love your hands, transcribers!
4. Massage therapy
Another home remedy that I went through was scheduled massage therapy sessions. Now, if you think that I’d go to a clinic and stuff—no, I didn’t. In Indonesia, it’s common to have your massage therapist on-call or well, on Whatsapp. They’ll do a house visit and run the session at your house.
A year before, my mother made acquaintance with this incredible massage therapist. Mum then recommended me to try if she can help by focusing on the wrist pain instead of having the typical whole-body massage session. This lady, she’s small-statured with such strength and power to manipulate muscles, and I admire her so much. I’m glad Mum knows her, and we both decided to stick to her services since our first sessions.
5. Pomodoro method
I would also recommend the Pomodoro work method that lets you set your own break time. In the beginning, I thought that I could do this myself—reminding myself to take a break by setting the alarm on my phone—but it’s not effective, cause I’m such a… Well, I browsed around Google Play Store and found this free Pomodoro application. It’s called Focus To-Do.
I started using Focus To-Do and found out that my tasks can be finished much earlier than without the Pomodoro method. Weird, right? I mean, it’s as simple as taking a break every 20 minutes, but work is done earlier? How does that compute, though? Anyways, I’m not endorsed by them. They’re not the only Pomodoro application out there. I bet you already have your go-to Pomodoro app. In case you’re thinking to try, free version of Focus To-Do is also available.
Transcribing & Health: Lessons learned
Realising more and more about the correlation between transcribing & carpal tunnel syndrome, I thought I need to evaluate my way of working and make adjustments where necessary. I’ll be honest with you all, it’s not easy. But then again, who says being one’s boss is an easy thing to do?
It requires super self-discipline regime, and it’s not something that I master or keen on doing. Heck, no, I’m not perfect. All I can do is try to make the necessary adjustments and push myself to stick to it. I learned that being a freelancer comes with a responsibility to take care of ourselves because no one is taking care of us. In my case, this means to arrange my schedule neatly so that they don’t overlap each other and making sure that I have enough time for every task at hand.
By early November, my hands started to make peace with the syndrome. I began to suffer less and less from muscle spasms or pain in the wrist area. Of course, I keep practising the frequent breaks every 20 minutes. I realised that I have approached this job the wrong way. I should have paid more attention to the health and wellness of my hands because they mean a lot to me. I type with them, I crochet with them, I write with them, I wind yarns with them, I do everything with them.
I should have been more appreciative to my hands. Instead, I neglected to care for them for more than six months. I was blinded by the prospect of a large sum of income and forgot about the wellness aspect of myself. Yes, getting income is excellent. But what income will I get if I can no longer use my hands to do this job?
One thing that I still have to master is the discipline to maintain my posture while sitting. This aspect might seem minuscule compared to the case I have with my wrists. But posture is everything. With correct posture, I’d have less back pain. I’d be typing or writing in the correct position that will support my wrists so they won’t get hurt anymore.
Sometimes I feel like an ignorant person here. I learned about muscles and bones and how each bodily movement affects both elements. But, I successfully ignored everything I had learned before and deviated from the science. I shouldn’t do that. If you are in the same field of work, please remember to take care of your hands. They’re our money-makers and need to be protected. This also goes to people who work with their hands, doing repetitive movements: musicians, surgeons, archaeologists, painters, whatever—take care of your hands.
Repetitive strain injury sucks, it’s painful and uncomfortable. Don’t let it turn to carpal tunnel syndrome, or it will require you to undergo surgery. Please, take care of your hands. Now, take a break.