Back Pain Included*

Mel Chua ‘07 would have chosen to link her brain to her computer and forgo her body completely. Her fingers couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with what her brain was creating. But there’s a part of this rote engineer mindset that needs consideration: how do we take care of ourselves?

About a year after graduation (I had been a computer geek for many years at that point, and had spent lots of time hunched over laptop keyboards and tinkering with horrible ergonomics), I had a horrible bout of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

When you misuse your body in the same way for prolonged periods of time, the muscles start seizing up in weird ways and you stop being able to have mobility. I couldn’t move some of my fingers, and when I did, nerve pain would shoot up my arm. It was really bad; I wasn’t sleeping, I had to stop working for a couple months because I couldn’t touch a keyboard without occasionally crying.

So I decided, ‘I never want this to happen again, what do I need to learn?’ That’s what spurred my interest in anatomy and movement and muscle care. In grad school, I accidentally stumbled into the dance department when they were offering Modern Dance 1. That ended up with me being immersed in dance classes for the rest of grad school and learning that it’s really hard to start ballet when you’re 25.

One of the things I noticed in industry when I talked with my older colleagues was they said, ‘Yeah, that. That’s normal. It’s completely normal to have crippling pain that’s work related by the time you’re 25, if you’re really serious about this.’ That’s awful, why would we think that this is ok?

We talk about beautiful soldering, boards that have been very well put together, or the path that a tool takes as it cuts through material. So we have those notions for talking about good mechanics of inanimate things interacting with inanimate things and we value them and we value good craft. But if you’re soldering some through holes and the tip of the soldering iron is moving beautifully and the rest of you is scrunched over, why aren’t we changing this system too?

One thing I wish could happen on campus is if it were more ok to move and sit and stand in classrooms or meetings, like explicitly ok. You can sit on the floor, you can lean against the fall, and if you need to fiddle or go get water, if you want to take your shoes off and walk around in socks, that’s fine. Sometimes not being able to do those things can be more distracting.

Whatever lets you be present in this room, do it.

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