In today's blog post I am going to talk about something very personal. I am going to talk to you about what research can do to you physically and why you need to protect yourself.
The physical price I have had to pay has not been a pleasant one. Ignoring the constant exhaustion because you're stress dreaming every other night about a decimal place, I have recently been diagnosed with repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my right wrist. For those that don't know me, my dominant hand is my right. This makes basic every day things like washing my hair and dressing a constant struggle. You can imagine how well I can pipette or type.
What is RSI?
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is an umbrella term for injury caused to tendons or muscles that experience constant use. There are many types of RSI including carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. In fact I have tendonitis and tenosynovitis (i.e inflammation of two tendons in my wrist and thumb and inflammation of the muscle sheath that covers them). The pain can reach all the way up into my elbow and shoulder. I also have a good deal of muscle weakness in my right wrist, thumb and fingers.
For more information about RSI: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Repetitive-strain-injury/Pages/Diagnosis.aspx
I started developing pain in my hand in September 2016 but, as I do, I ignored it. It wasn't until I had an extremely important, sensitive experiment to do in November 2016 did my hand pain become a massive problem. I was unable to fully stretch my fingers or make a full fist. I had an almost claw hand. My knuckles were sore and I had pins and needles in my index finger (almost like it wasn't my own). Bending my wrist in any direction was agony. This, as you can imagine, made using pipettes incredibly difficult. Thankfully I work with some extraordinary people. The lab manager here, Nahal, also suffers with RSI and recognised the signs immediately. She pushed me to seek help and to stop working. She even helped me with the final stages of my big experiment (I had been building up to it for a year). I got to use a fully automated single arm machine which plated up my experiments for me. It was amazing! With Nahal's help, along with others in my lab (Annelie, Francesca, Ayse and Ebtihal), I managed to finish my experiment with pretty decent results.
Once I was done in the lab, I got help from the impeccable staff of the Occupational Health (OH) here in Imperial College London. They did assessments and in cooperation with my GP I had x-rays and blood tests. OH also provided physiotherapy to start me on the road to recovery. Thankfully I had a month at Christmas to rest my hand and (as you know) three weeks in France doing computer analysis to further rest my hand. I did go back to work after I came back from France, however I greatly reduced my lab hours to 1-2 hours per day, ONLY 5 days a week.
What Caused my RSI?
Working too hard. I mean working myself hard. For 9 months during the first year of my PhD I worked 7 days a week, up to 50-70 hours a week. 90% of this time was in a lab constantly doing experiments (sometimes up to 6 or 7 a day, all at the same time). I actually calculated that I worked more weekend days in a four month period than I had taken off from January to September (including a two week holiday in September and Easter).
I am a bit mad, I'm not going to lie. It has been not-so-subtly suggested more than once that I should seek mental health care. I don't really self-preserve. I push myself a lot. I need to be perfect and when I'm not I punish myself for my failure. When I'm not in work, I drive myself mad thinking about work (remember I mentioned stress dreams). This constant need to push myself effects my sleep patterns, eating patterns and my ability to feel and ignore pain. I have low grade chronic lower back pain from a traffic accident in 2009 but anyone looking at me would never guess.
I also have no ability to say "no". I have organised lab retreats, lab trips, charity events and raffles. I currently run the epigenetic unit meetings and manage (from a distance) the group journal club as well. As a CRUK funded researcher I have also said yes to (almost) everything CRUK have asked me to do. This means taking time off work to go to the PGA tour or half days to bucket collect etc. No matter what someone asks of me I will always say yes and give 1000%. And honestly, I love it. I love helping out, no matter what I'm asked to do. It gives me a sense of purpose, like I'm doing something right even if my lab work is going to hell.
As I said I am a bit mad. But all of this has caught up to me and now my work and potentially my career is suffering for it.
What is happening now (22/03/2017):
It is not going well. While the break and medication did reduce my pain and help me feel like I was getting back to normal, I was in fact kidding myself. My wrist muscles are pretty weak. I keep dropping things, which as you can imagine in a lab can be dangerous, and the pain is almost as bad as it was in November. Currently I am doing physiotherapy with the NHS. I am in a splint which does not let me move my thumb at all and I am doing strengthening exercises (I've even set alarms to remind myself). I am no longer in the lab. I am only doing computer analysis and that is pretty damn slow itself. Writing and typing is like being stabbed with tiny needles. I no longer work weekends (even on the computer). I have even been reduced to just cardio in the gym (I exercise 5-6 times a week because it calms me and makes me happy) which is INCREDIBLY BORING! All in all I am recovering but slowly.
The moral of the story?
No matter what pressure you're under, no matter who puts that pressure on you, you need to protect yourself. My hand is my career. Without it I can no longer work in a lab. If I don't get over my own psychological issues and buck up I could be disabled for god only knows how long. This is WAY easier said than done. I am working on it. Part of the reason why I started this blog (you'll notice I started in November) is to alleviate some of the guilt I feel not working.
For anyone who reads this who does lab or computer work PLEASE PLEASE PROTECT YOUR HANDS. I honestly mean it. I was you 6 months ago, not really paying attention to all those "ergonomic advice memos" and now I'm here, 6 months on struggling to wash my hair because my hand hurts so much. You do NOT want to be me! Thankfully I have become a bit of an example in my group and people are paying more attention to their working practice. I have brand new ergonomic pipettes (THANKS JAMES!!) and a new look on my working life. I will never have a relaxed attitude about working and being the best but I am definitely going to take my time from now on.
I hope my hand does get better and I can get back some of my life 6 months ago (not all of it, weekends will have to become work free zones).
I will keep you updated on how my recovery is going.
My name is Caitriona and I am a PhD student at Imperial College London, UK.