Repetitive strain injury

What is Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)?

Occupational overuse syndrome, work-related upper limb injury, and isometric contraction myopathy, are all phrases used to describe what is more commonly known as RSI.

Overuse of the muscles of the hands, wrists, arms or shoulders on a repeated, and usually, daily basis, causes injury to these muscles. This results in inflammation that's never really given a chance to recover, since these everyday activities invariably continue.

The computer keyboard and mouse are often blamed for RSI, but shouldn't be charged with sole responsibility. For a start, the body was never designed to sit hunched over a desk. Poorly positioned and organised workstations add to the problem. Let's not forget, the longer someone puts a strain on muscles by sitting incorrectly for far too long without taking a break, the more likely the body is to suffer the consequences.

The change in our home life and activities also contributes. Computers are ever present, and young children and teenagers are at risk of developing RSI by repeated use of computer games, whether they are hand-held or played on the TV or computer.

Tense muscles do not function correctly, which means that someone under stress is also much more likely to suffer muscle damage and subsequent RSI.

Reducing your risk

But RSI is not a new phenomenon. Tennis elbow and golfer's elbow are two common examples of other overuse syndromes. They have been around for a long time and you don't have to play tennis or golf either.

Anyone who overuses their muscles in their arms and hands repeatedly may develop RSI. These can range from workers on factory assembly lines to musicians to dressmakers and cleaners. It's only since office work has become such a prominent part of everyday life that office work has fallen under the spotlight.

Protect yourself
  • Assess workstation and seating position
  • Try a foam wrist support
  • Stretch to warm up and warm down muscles
  • Take a short break every 20 minutes
  • Practise relaxation
Identifying RSI

It may be months, even years, before someone starts to experience the discomfort and pain of RSI. This is because it takes time for the repetitive damage to reach a level where it causes problems.

It often starts with a slight ache every now, which people often ignore. As time passes and the damage continues, individuals may experience symptoms while performing the repeated activity, when typing for example.

As the situation becomes more severe, pain may be felt most of the time, even with the slightest movement. One or both upper limbs may be affected. Many people also experience numbness and tingling. Sometimes, this and the pain mean that they find it difficult to hold objects, and often drop them.

Treating RSI

Someone is at risk of suffering with RSI if their job involves performing repetitive movements. This risk is increased if a person spends long periods of time, sitting on an uncomfortable seat or at a poorly arranged workstation without taking a break.

Prevention is always better than cure, which is why it's important to ask your employer to assess and make sure your workstation and seating position are correct. It's amazing how a simple adaptation, such as using a foam support to rest the wrists on when typing, can make all the difference.

These movements are similar to giving the muscles a workout. This means that just like with any exercise or sport, they need warming up beforehand, and to go through a warm down period afterwards.

Try not to sit for longer than 20 minutes without taking a short break to stretch and relax. Stress makes matters worse, so relaxation techniques or yoga can be a good help. Gentle stretching exercises are all that's needed.

Heat or cold packs; the natural anti-inflammatory arnica, which comes as a capsule or cream form; painkillers such as paracetamol; and anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen that comes in tablets, gels, and creams; can all relieve pain and discomfort. They are available from the pharmacist, as are elastic wrist support bandages that help too.

When the situation deteriorates, stronger medicines may be needed from the doctor, who may also recommend acupuncture or firm wrist splints to help relieve the pain. Physiotherapy, osteopathy, or the Alexander technique, are also good for pain relief, and also encourage good posture.

Possible treatments
  • Heat or cold packs
  • Arnica
  • Painkillers
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines
  • Elastic wrist supports
  • Acupuncture
  • Firm wrist splints
  • Physiotherapy
  • Osteopathy
  • Alexander technique