The term repetitive strain injury, or RSI, refers to discomfort or pain felt in the muscles, tendons or nerves caused by repetitive movements or overuse.
It has been reported that half of people that work with computers report symptoms of RSI in their neck, shoulder, wrist or hand, with the wrist being the most commonly reported affected area.
An RSI can occur due to work related tasks or equipment use, physical activity or sports tasks or hobbies.
The most common areas of the body affected by RSIs are in the upper body:
Neck & shoulders
Elbows & forearms
Wrists & hands
RSIs affecting the upper limbs are also referred to as work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs) or non-specific upper limb pain.
RSIs can also occur in the back and lower limbs.
Common Repetitive Strain Conditions Include:
Rotator Cuff Strain
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis
Back and Neck Pain
Spinal Disc Bulge
Repetitive Strain Injuries are not always caused by work tasks. I myself developed one when learning to crochet (badly!). However, the cumulative time spent completing work related tasks increases the likelihood that these tasks will cause or contribute to their development.
How do RSIs Develop?
RSIs are generally caused by a combination of factors. These factors combine to injure the muscles, tissues and nerves. The potential risk factors include:
- Repetitive use of the same area, both large movements or fine motor movements
- Prolonged static postures, both whole body postures and pinch / grip postures
- Prolonged adverse postures
- Manual handling
- Poor physical condition or lack of exercise
- Previous injuries
- Exposure to cold work environments
- Exposure to vibration
RSIs Associated with Muscles & Tendons:
When muscles and tendons are worked, tiny micro tears can form in the tissues. Inflammation occurs in the area as the body works to repair the tissues.
An easy example of this to understand is the Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) we experience in the days after a new or progressed exercise. This is essential for muscle development.
However, if this is repeated without appropriate recovery periods, the inflammation worsens, scar tissue develops and pain worsens.
RSIs Associated with Nerves:
As the nerves can run through and alongside your muscles and tendons, if these tissues get damaged, it will impact the health of the nerves.
Neurological symptoms in RSIs are usually caused by compression, restriction or trapping of a nerve(s) due to the tightness or inflammation of the tissues and lack of space available around the nerve. As these tissues and nerves are used repeatedly without adequate recovery, the nerves themselves can become inflamed.
Importantly, the site of the pain may not be the site of the issue as compression of a nerve in your neck can manifest in the arms and hands and compression of nerve in your back can manifest in the legs and feet.
What are the Signs & Symptoms of an RSI?
Generally, RSIs start as a mild discomfort, a niggle that you feel when only completing certain tasks. Over time, if the cause of the discomfort is not addressed, this can progress to chronic pain that can negatively impact your ability to carry out day to day tasks and may require medical or surgical intervention to reduce symptoms.
- Pain, ranging from mild discomfort to debilitating
- Numbness or tingling
- Sensitivity to heat or cold
- Discoloration of hands and fingers
How are RSIs Treated?
When symptoms begin, reduce exposure to aggravating tasks and seek professional advice.
Treatment varies based on duration, severity and impact on ability to perform tasks.
- Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation
- Oral or topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
- Steroid injections
- Stress reduction & relaxation training
- Strapping & use of a splint
- Surgical intervention
How Can RSIs Be Prevented In The Workplace?
Take regular breaks from static and repetitive tasks and manual handling tasks
Maintain neutral and supported postures when completing regular or prolonged tasks
An ergonomic assessment of your workstation or tasks can reduce exposure to the risks and severity of symptoms.
Risk assessment of tasks to ensure tasks that present a risk of RSI are identified, assessed and the risk reduced or eliminated.
Ensure adequate training of operators to allow for task rotation in the work area
When it comes to reducing the risk of developing an RSI or reducing the severity of a potential RSI in the workplace, it is so important to report the symptoms early, seek treatment and request an ergonomic risk assessment to try and identify the cause.
The sooner the cause can be identified and the exposure reduced or eliminated, the less of an impact an injury will have on your wellbeing.