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Repetitive Stress Injuries

  • Definition

    Repetitive stress injuries (RSI) is a catch-all terms used to refer to many painful conditions, such as trigger finger, nerve spasms, and carpal tunnel syndrome. They can cause stiffness, swelling, tingling, weakness, numbness and, in some cases, irreversible nerve damage.

    The term includes a group of disorders that most commonly develop in workers using excessive and repetitive motions of the head and neck extremity.

    Cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) are injuries sustained through performance of repetitive tasks - these account for more than half of all occupational illnesses in the U.S..


    When force is applied repeatedly to the same muscle group, joint, or tendon over a prolonged period, cumulative forces may cause soft tissue tears and trauma. The resulting injury may lead to ligament and tendon disorders, degenerative joint disease, bursitis, or nerve damage. In addition to repetition and high force, risk factors associated with RSI and CTDs include awkward joint posture and prolonged constrained posture.

    tendinitis can also develop if you are a competitive athlete or if your job requires the same repetitive movement during the work day. Such tendinitis can develop, for example, amongst electricians, and meat packers (because of the repetitive wrist extension, flexing and thrust necessary to grip knives and carve through frozen meat).

    Hand-and-wrist RSI begins when the tendons or nerves that pass through a delicate channel in the wrist (the "tunnel" formed by eight small carpal, or wrist, bones protecting the medial nerve) are irritated. Typing with the wrist at an angle - a common practice - places extra stress on those tendons or nerves, which can cause permanent injury. Other problems known generically as RSI include tenosynovitis and myofascitis, or inflammation of the tendons, connective tissues and muscles, and de Quervain's disease, a tendinitis of the thumb, which may develop from the overuse of the space bar or computer mouse.


    Typical early symptoms include numbness, or tingling or burning sensations, in the fingers, hands or forearms which can become crippling. Victims of full-blown RSI cannot wash their hair or even hold a sheet of paper without agonizing pain. Some of the very severely afflicted never recover.


    Occupational therapists can help patients with these disorders practice "joint protection." Patients can learn to use their hands in non-deforming positions. For example, instead of grabbing a key with a thumb and twisting, patients can learn to turn a key with adaptive equipment.

    Coping skills also include the use of over the counter drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen for mild to moderate symptoms or prescription NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for stronger anti-inflammatory relief.

    RSI may be avoidable through proper work habits - including posture, wrist position and regular work breaks - as well as ergonomically designed workstations and keyboards.


    What movement or posture is causing the tendinitis?

    What can be done to relieve the repetitive strain?

    How can the wrists and hands be protected?

    Will over the counter drugs such as aspirin help?

    Will potent anti-inflammatory drugs be prescribed?

    Will physical therapy or yoga help?

    Recently, Yoga has been shown to help some individuals with RSI. It likely works in part through both toning and strengthening muscles involved in activity, and by helping individuals learn appropriate muscle relaxation techniques.

    Prevention is important. Using appropriate posture while doing repetitive tasks is key. The use of specially designed equipment also can help people avoid this problem. A few simple changes in work habits and in your office setup can save you months or years of pain and disability.

    See the links below for prevention and relief ideas regarding computer-related RSI.