Symptoms & Causes of Repetitive Strain Injury

What is Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)?

Repetitive strain injury or RSI can be explained as injury of muscles, tendons and nerves caused by repetitive movements. Such movements may lead to chronic pain. It is mostly related with upper limb disorder, or non-specific upper limb pain. Our upper limb is essential for carrying out simple everyday tasks. As people grow older, it is subjected to wear and tear. Repetitive strain injury can be caused by a variety of tasks such as forceful or repetitive activity or by poor posture. It is usually associated with doing a particular activity repeatedly or for a very long period of time.  RSI mostly affects the parts of the upper body such as:
  • Neck 
  • Shoulders
  • Forearms
  • Wrists 
  • Hands
  • Elbows 
Other common names include repetitive stress disorders, cumulative trauma disorders and overuse syndrome.  Repetitive strain injury

RSI is associated with the overuse of muscles in the upper body. Jobs such as working on a checkout computer in a supermarket that require repetitive movements can lead to RSI. There are certain things that might increase the risk of repetitive strain injury. These include 
  • Intense work for prolonged time without any rest
  • Poor posture
  • Repetitive activities. 
  • Stress
All of the above use the upper limb, particularly, in our daily life chores, but RSI is concerned with making repetitive movements without any break. Typists, computer operators, musicians, cobblers, cleaners, athletes all have a risk of developing RSI. It is not necessary for all such people to develop RSI. It is still unclear why some people develop RSI and others do not. Sometimes, people do not have any visible signs, but they still get diagnosed with RSI.  Cold temperature and vibrating equipment are thought to increase the risk of getting repetitive strain injury. RSI can also be associated with depression. Greater the force involved, greater is the risk of getting repetitive strain injury. 

The symptoms of RSI may vary from person to person. Different individuals have different levels of pain. The affected area can become stiff and tender. It can produce tingling sensation due to nerve damage. You will feel sharp pain in the affected area. RSI will also lead to weakness, as if the hand is affected, and your grip may become weak. The symptoms can be listed down as 
  • Stiffness
  • Weakness
  • Cramps
  • Pain, aching
  • Throbbing
In the start, you might notice symptoms only when you are doing some repetitive activity. But if you do not get it treated it will become constant and cause pain for a prolonged period of time. The affected area may get swollen as well, and that swelling can last for several weeks. 

RSI can be divided into two types. 
  • Type 1: 

It is characterized by well-defined symptoms which include Tenosynovitis (swelled tendon sheath), carpel tunnel syndrome (compression of nerves causing sharp pain) and tendonitis. 
  • TYPE 2: 

In type 2 RSI, there are no well-defined symptoms like in type 1. For this reason, it is also known as diffused RSI. 

Some symptoms of RSI can be treated by correct posture and less activities. First of all, doctors modify and identify the task that is causing the symptoms. By examining your medical condition, your doctor might ask you to rest and reduce the activities that caused RSI. If your condition cannot be treated this way, the doctor might prescribe you muscle relaxants or short course of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug as ibuprofen. If the pain is chronic, he may suggest to use hot or cold packs, splint or elastic support.  You might also get referred to a physiotherapist. For some people, therapy like massage, osteopathy and yoga may work to relieve symptoms.  If you have specific medical conditions, well-established medical conditions such as medications, self-help measures or even surgery can be recommended.  The common treatment options can be stated as:
  • Medication: such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce pain, antidepressants for sound sleep
  • Elastic support or splints: To keep the affected area intact for healing
  • Physiotherapy: To correct posture and help with strengthening or relaxing muscles
  • Steroid injections: To reduce inflammation in affected area. Only in severe conditions
  • Surgery: To treat specific problems with nerves and tendons

There are several things you can do to reduce the risk of getting repetitive strain injury. These include
  • Maintaining good posture
  • Taking frequent breaks in long repetitive activities
  • Realize that you are causing strain by doing repetitive activities
  • Modify your tasks to prevent damage