Repetitive strain injury (RSI) explained


RSI is among the most common work-related ailments. We look at the causes and treatment options.

By Dr Roger Henderson

Experiencing pain, tingling, throbbing or cramps after carrying out a particular task at work? It could be repetitive strain injury (RSI), a general term used to describe the pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons caused by repetitive movement and overuse.

GP Dr Roger Henderson looks at common causes, treatment and prevention tips for RSI:

What is repetitive strain injury?

RSI, also known as overuse syndrome or upper limb syndrome, describes pain associated with loss of function in a limb resulting from repetitive movement or sustained static loading. RSI is among the most common work-related ailments, affecting millions of workers.

⚠️ It has been estimated that around 200,000 employees take time off work each year in Britain because of RSI, costing industry over £3 billion. A similar number suffer in silence.

Certain tasks are thought to increase the risk of RSI, including repetitive activities, poor posture, high-intensity activities without rest or tasks involving working in an awkward or uncomfortable position. Stress is also thought to play a part and using vibrating equipment in the workplace.

Repetitive strain injury symptoms

RSI most commonly affects the neck, shoulders, arms and hands of keyboard workers and other people who continually carry out the same tasks and movements in their work.

Symptoms typically include the following:

  • Pain, aching or tenderness
  • Throbbing
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Cramping
  • Stiffness

At the outset, symptoms may only be experienced towards the end of the day. But if left unchecked they may progress, with the time between starting work and the onset of pain becoming inexorably shorter.

Tenosynovitis (inflammation of the tendon sheath) of the wrist associated with typing or operating a word processor is the injury now most frequently reported, although sewing machine operators and DIY enthusiasts face similar problems.

Repetitive strain injury causes

As in many other soft tissue problems affecting the musculoskeletal system, RSI is entirely triggered by misuse or overuse of one part of the body.

Contributing factors include:

➡️ An ergonomically unsound workstation.

➡️ Prolonged periods of work without adequate breaks.

➡️ Sustained overuse from too much repetitive movement.

➡️ Poor posture.

➡️ Excessive workload.

➡️ Lack of control in the prioritisation of tasks or the intensity of work.

➡️ A cold working environment.

Repetitive strain injury treatment options

To start with, try to identify the activity that is causing your symptoms. You might need to stop doing this task in order to identify the problem. Your doctor may then refer you to a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist, who can relieve discomfort, design corrective exercises and advise on correct posture and anti-inflammatory treatment.

Early treatment is essential as chronic RSI often becomes intractable. No one treatment works for everyone, and treatment must be tailored to the individual’s needs.

Deep tissue massage, heat, osteopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, infra-red, laser diathermy and medicines are all treatment options. Ask your GP for advice.

⚠️ If you experience any RSI symptoms, talk to employers and consult your GP and/or the company’s occupational health doctor at an early stage.

Repetitive strain injury prevention tips

To minimise your chances of RSI or ease existing symptoms, try the following:

✔️ Split work up and do different tasks now and again, rather than concentrating on one job for two or three days at a time.

✔️ Take regular breaks from whatever tool you are using, say, every hour or so, and stand up and stretch, straighten your arms and flex your fingers and wrists.

✔️ Look at distant objects through a window (a real life one, that is!) if you tend to spend hours in front of a screen.

✔️ Learn to touch type if you work on a keyboard. This uses all your fingers and thumbs and enables you to look upwards instead of down and to the side.

✔️ Position your equipment and furniture properly. Correct office ergonomics are designed to avoid postural strain and muscle tension.

✔️ Adjust the height of a chair relative to the desk, and make sure your lumbar spine is supported.

✔️ Sit close enough to the desk, so you can rest your hands on the keyboard.

✔️ Shoulders should be relaxed, with upper arms hanging vertically downwards with forearms held at 90 degrees when typing.

✔️ When working with a computer, use keyboards and mouse mats that have cushioned wrist protectors that help reduce strain on the wrists and fingers.

The Atlantic


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