Listen to the news, read a magazine or go anyplace where people work with computers, and you'll hear about repetitive strain injury (RSI). Sometimes you'll hear it called carpal tunnel syndrome (one form of RSI). Regardless of what you call it, RSI causes debilitating pain in hands, arms and shoulders. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 615,000 cases of RSI reported in 1993.

Reports from ergonomic experts at the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that RSI is much easier to prevent than to cure and can affect anyone regardless of age or physical condition. Many RSI sufferers are never able to fully cure their RSI symptoms."The symptoms started slowly with minor numbness in both hands," says Donna Schrout, who suffers from a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome. "I found myself constantly taking my hands off the keyboard and shaking them. I never took this kind of thing seriously until it happened to me, and now it's too late."

Stay limber

One of the best ways to avoid RSI is by keeping yourself limber and not exerting yourself unnecessarily as you type or use the mouse. Don't pound on your keyboard - tap lightly and hold your mouse gently.

You may have to pay attention to both your keyboard and mouse usage for a month to change your habits. Put a note on your computer to remind yourself. Plus, for quick pointers on staying limber, read our stretch tips at the end of this story, or check out some of the ergonomically correct sites we found.

Performing the same motions over and over - thousands of times - causes damage to muscles, nerves and tendons. Imagine how many times you click your mouse or move your trackball each month.

Try counting the number of hours you spend with your arms bent and your hands on the keyboard. The more you use your computer, the more critical it is to take stock of your equipment and habits.

Consider upgrading your keyboard or mouse before you have pain or discomfort. You have a choice to either learn a little about ergonomic equipment, correct posture and other good habits, or roll the dice and see if you'll fall victim to RSI. If you wait, it could be too late. An ounce of prevention may be worth a lifetime of computing comfort.

Ergonomic keyboards

One of the most basic changes you can make in your computer setup is your keyboard. Sit comfortably in front of your computer and place your hands on the keys; notice the angle of your wrists. While you type, your wrists and fingers should line up directly with your arms - they shouldn't be bent. There are several keyboards on the market designed to keep your hands in the right position and provide an extra level of comfort.

Stress-free hands

Repetitive mouse clicking and moving and typing can cause pain in the hands and wrists. The Windows "double click," with its rapid motion of the fingers, can be a major source of computer-related injury.

Yet it is critical to keep your hands and wrists comfortable and stress-free while you work, even if you're not typing or clicking.

Many new and popular options to the standard old mouse have appeared on the market. The trackball seems to lead in this division, with Logitech's version paving the way.

Caution: wrist rests

There are many types of wrist rests ranging from simple foam rubber to gel-filled. Contrary to what most people think, wrist rests are designed for when you're not typing - your wrists should not bend or rest on anything as you type. Your wrist rest should be in a comfortable place where your wrists can rest a few seconds when you stop typing. If you take a long break, relax your hands in your lap or hang them by your sides.

To find the right wrist rest for you, go to a store, try them out and let comfort be your guide.

Stretch tips

To stretch your forearms, put your palms together with your fingers pointing toward the ceiling. Then, slowly lower your hands toward the floor until you feel the stretch.

To stretch your wrists, put your arms straight in front of you and move your hands up and down.