If you have very occasional symptoms, once a week or less, you should still worry. You may be slowly building up damage to your tissues, and the problems may get much worse over time. See a doctor. Try to fix your ergonomics or work habits, so that you never have problems. "Repetitive Strain Injuries, a Computer User's Guide", by Dr. Emil Pascarelli and Deborah Quilter, recommend finding out how long you can type with absolutely no symptoms, subtracting 10 minutes from this, and never typing longer than that without a break.
In addition to following the suggestions for Preventing RSI above, the most important advice we can give you at this stage, is not to overdo it. Listen to your body. RSI is not something which will go away if you ignore it or try to work through it. If you don't correct what is causing the problem, you can cause permanent nerve damage. Don't fall into the trap of saying "I just need to finish this assignment". Too many of us have tried that, only to reach the point where we physically cannot continue.
If your symptoms are more severe than this, perhaps read the more severe RSI problems section.
Most of us, when we first had minor symptoms, didn't stop. We really wish we had, now that we have long term problems. The longer it takes you to stop typing (or writing or whatever causes you problems) the more severe your problems become, and the longer recovery takes. Probably, when you first start having problems, it's because there's some deadline. Here is a list of the top reasons why people keep typing and don't go to the doctor, even though they know they shouldn't:
- You have a deadline (like a term paper, quals, conference paper, etc.) This is what happened to most of us. We thought: we'll stop typing after this deadline. Only, by then we had already done long term damage. If we'd stopped to think about it, we probably could have gotten an extension (especially with a doctor's note), or could have skipped that conference. In retrospect, the damage wasn't worth it.
- You have to keep working for your job: you really need the money. If you think quitting your job or taking sick leave for a month or two is expensive, you should try not being able to get a job because you can't type. It's almost certainly cheaper to take a little time off now than to have trouble working at all for years to come.
- You're healthy and strong. Yes, you can be healthy and strong and still get RSI. We knew an olympic rower who got serious problems from typing.
- You have good ergonomics and good typing habits. Well, even if you do everything right, once you're injured you won't be able to do the things a normal person does. You'll still need to stop and recover before you can go back to work.
- How can just typing hurt you? Typing uses a lot of small muscles tens of thousands of times per day, so over time, it can put a lot of strain on you.
- You don't type at all. You can get RSI from almost any repetitive activity, including writing, using an electron microscope, pipetting or knitting or other hobbies.
- You're not typing very much right now, so you're not worried, even though you do have mild symptoms when you type. OK, you're not typing much right now. But when the end of the term comes around and you have two or three term papers, or when you do a marathon email session, or whatever, you might put yourself over the edge. Or, if next semester you take a heavy workload class, or over the summer you get a job with lots of typing. RSI takes a long time to heal: get an early start by seeing a doctor and fixing your habits now.
- You only have problems in one hand; you'll just use the good hand for a while. You may end up hurting your good hand the same way you hurt your bad hand (happened to me!). Having no working hands can be pretty miserable... Switching hands can be helpful, but more important is fixing the basic problems.