This is the story of my year-long encounter with RSI (repetitive strain injury) and other ailments, and there's also some commentary afterwards. The upshot is, I got better very quickly after reading "Healing Back Pain" by John Sarno. This text assumes a bit of familiarity with this book; if you aren't familiar but want to be, I recommend doing an internet search for "RSI and John Sarno", and you can learn all about this miraculously effective (at least for me) treatment, as well as the somewhat kooky theory underlying it. (Here's my own variation on that theory that I'd like to think is more correct and less kooky.)


I came down with RSI near the end of my junior year in college (April/May 2006). For years, I had been at my computer probably 4 or so hours a day, and I had always had atrocious posture (often my legs were up over the arm of my chair). Anyway, near the end of my junior year I started noticing pain when I was typing, and it wouldn't go away, even after I bought a new keyboard. In a few weeks, I had dramatically cut down on typing, and still my hands hurt. My doctor diagnosed RSI-tendonitis, and I started seeing a physical therapist. I spent the summer asking friends to open doors and dial phones for me, and didn't type at all. The pain was terrible.

In the fall, I found a class schedule that would be consistent with my capabilities, and got by mostly handwriting, occasionally asking friends to type things up for me. My hands still hurt quite a lot, but I had stopped seeing the physical therapist, which I wasn't finding to be very helpful, and instead was following the regime in the book by Pascarelli & Quilter. Incidentally, I also during the course of the fall had foot pain, which I traced back to an abortive attempt during the summer to type a bit using my toes. A doctor diagnosed me with plantar fasciitis. I bought new shoes and it was usually okay, although I shied away from taking especially long walks thereafter. Another thing was that in late September, I used speech-recognition software (Dragon NaturallySpeaking) to type something up, and found that after doing so, I had a mild sore throat that made it hurt to talk, and wouldn't go away.

At the end of the fall semester, I felt that my typing ability had improved somewhat. But then finals came and I had to do some typing for a short final paper, and some handwriting for a take-home final. Afterwards, not only had my typing abilities greatly regressed, but handwriting, too, had become quite painful. I bought thick, gel-tip pens, and thickened them further with duct tape, and I was able to get by in my coursework by writing a few sentences at a time, rather illegibly. My sore-throat wasn't getting any better, even after months, and after a visiting a couple doctors and a speech therapist, I was diagnosed with "functional dysphonia", meaning they didn't know what was wrong. I felt compelled to minimize talking for a while, which really hurt my social life for this period. Meanwhile, my ability to type without pain was fairly stagnant through the spring, and I rarely typed more than a minute or two at a time, using enforced-break software ("Oostime") on its strongest settings.

Finally, on May 1st, a friend who had had RSI (for even longer and worse than me) emailed me, suggesting I read "Healing Back Pain" by John Sarno. Some of the book rang true (especially given that writing, walking, and talking had all somewhat-independently become big problems), and my confidence was bolstered by googling "RSI and Sarno" and reading the countless testimonials. At the same time, I had a 3-hour in-class exam coming up, as well as a big final paper to type, and no other idea how I was going to be able to do either of them. So I decided to take the plunge, and type up my big paper as if I were healthy. It certainly hurt at first, but using strategies such as "talking to my body", and having confidence that there was no "structural damage", I got through it and the pain decreased quickly, mostly within the day or two it took to write the paper. There was some lingering soreness, but I thought of it as muscles getting sore the first few times you exercise and strengthen them, and that soreness went away too. So I had typed a ten-page paper in two days with no pain afterwards—even though just a week earlier, I had barely able to painfully type a 1/2-page "response paper" spread out over the course of a day. The next week I took my three-hour exam with a completely un-ergonomic pencil, and almost no pain—again, a big change from a couple weeks earlier when I was limited to a few sentences at a time with an ergonomic pen.

I was simultaneously applying this strategy to my foot and throat pain, and they both also promptly went away,

Since then, I haven't had any pain typing, writing, or talking, despite typing for hours a day on a very un-ergonomic laptop keyboard with an unergonomic chair, desk, and posture (I ended up giving my ergonomic keyboard to charity). I have experienced the "plantar fasciitis" a couple times since then, but I apply the same strategy and it goes away in a few minutes without me missing a stride.


To this day, certain aspects of what Dr. Sarno writes don't really ring true to me. For example, I wasn't having any emotional trauma or repressed anger during this period (with the big exception, admittedly, of the injury itself). And with so much of Freud's psychological ideas having been discredited in the past century, I just don't see my tricky subconscious mind trying to dupe my gullible conscious mind, or anything like that. But I understand that lots of other people find that these ideas resonate very well with their experience, so who knows. [Update - years later I wrote this blog post with my own ideas about what was really going on.]

In any case, regardless of whether or not all the details of Dr. Sarno's diagnosis are correct, there's no doubt that the treatment is effective, or was for me. And I guess there's nothing wrong with that: after all, there are plenty of standard prescription medications which work in ways that aren't entirely understood, but they're still used if they've been proven safe and effective. Not only that, I can add that at least one of the most important points of Dr. Sarno's diagnosis—that there isn't any super-slowly-healing-tissue-damage inherent in RSI—is also proven (at least in my case) by the fact that my two-day recovery would have been physiologically impossible otherwise.

My health issues during the year from May 2006 to May 2007 are now a bad, weird memory, and to be honest, it's a bit painful and embarrassing to recall. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to put the information out there, in case anyone finds something that they can learn from my experience.

-Steve Byrnes, winter 2007

Update 2015: I have nothing new to report. Over the past many years, I have always had typing- and programming-heavy jobs and hobbies, regularly spending all day at my computer. And I still have terrible posture. But no RSI problems at all. Yay! :-)

Update 2020: Oh, in case you're interested, there's also this Quora thread from 2011-2013 with a bit more commentary from myself and two people who read my page here and found it helpful.

Update 2022: I wrote this blog post with my own speculative theories for what was really happening to me.