What is Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and How You Can Prevent it?

There is a common misconception that office workers are safe within their working environment as they are not exposed to harmful chemicals or heavy machinery. But there are hidden dangers that can impact heavily on a person’s health over time and can cause some great discomfort resulting in lengthy treatment and time off work. Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) affects a huge amount of people throughout the UK, many of whom could have prevented the injury with proper equipment and education on the subject.

repetitive strain injury office worker

What is Repetitive Strain Injury?

A repetitive strain injury is an injury that occurs as a result of repetitive movements, typically in the hands, wrists and forearms. The repetitive motions can cause irritation to the nerves in these areas and may lead to degeneration over time. RSI's worst symptom is pain and it can vary from mild to severe depending on how bad the repetitive injury got. When RSI gets worse, it can cause numbness or tingling sensations in the fingers and hand, or even feelings of weakness.

"Repetitive strain injury" is a general term used to describe pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons, but there are many names for the condition including repetitive stress disorder and cumulative trauma disorder (CTD). The diagnosis of RSI can only be made by seeing an occupational health doctor who will make sure you do not have any underlying conditions such as heart disease or diabetes that could further complicate treatment.

What Can Cause Repetitive Strain Injuries?

It is possible for repetitive strain injuries to occur from performing a repetitive task in the wrong way, e.g. carrying heavy loads on one side of your body or remaining stationary for long periods whilst working at a desk.

However, these injuries can still occur if you are performing your task correctly. A repetitive strain injury can be caused if you are trying to do a lot of repetitive work in an unbroken period. This leads to one part of the body performing repetitive movements more than others, which can cause pain, inflammation and can lead to RSI.

Some typical activities that can lead to RSI are:

  • Using a computer mouse
  • Typing on a computer keyboard
  • Working on an assembly line
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Grasping tools
  • Maintaining the same posture for long periods of time

If your day to day work has the possibility of increasing your chances of developing a repetitive strain injury, it's a good idea to start thinking about ways to prevent it. You should also talk to your employer about this issue and discuss if there are any ways to make your repetitive tasks easier.

The exact reasons why RSI actually establishes is unclear within the medical industry. Also, it is still not clear why some people develop RSI over time during repetitive tasks, and others doing the same tasks do not develop it.

It has also been suggested that physiological workplace factors can contribute to RSI. This normally means stress at work which can increase muscle tension and/or affects how the body feels pain in general.

Symptoms of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

RSI can cause a wide from of symptoms that largely centre around pain and tenderness in your muscles and joints. You will more likely notice this pain and tenderness during the day while performing the activities that caused it.

The joints can also become inflamed due to repetitive movement causing stiffness that may persist for several months after an injury has occurred.

RSI generally affects your;

  • Wrists and hands
  • Forearms and elbows
  • Neck and shoulders

Other areas can be affected but are less common.

Symptoms may occur gradually over time and become more intense and constant the longer you go without treatment and/or continue to perform the same movement that caused the pain in the first place.

Some people will experience symptoms that are not very noticeable at first or may only have one symptom, such as stiffness when they spend time at their desk typing on their keyboard for many hours per day.

RSI symptoms include;

  • Pain, ranging from mild to severe
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Throbbing
  • Tenderness
  • Sensitivity to cold or heat
  • Weakness
  • Cramp

How is Repetitive Strain Injury Treated?

It is important that you have a diagnosis of repetitive strain injury before treatment starts. What may feel like a repetitive strain injury could in fact be an underlying condition unrelated to your repetitive tasks.

Doctors will usually ask about the type of repetitive task, length of time performing repetitive actions and what activity preceded the pain. Depending on whether they think your injury is work-related or not, they might refer you to an occupational health doctor or suggest exercises for treatment. They will also ask how severe the pain/tenderness feels during repetitive tasks.

Treatment for RSI usually includes assessing the history of any activities that may have caused symptoms as well as treating any tenderness from repetitive movements, such as typing.

Initial treatment of RSI can include:

  • RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation
  • Exercise as part of a tailored physical therapy treatment plan
  • Stress reduction and relaxation training
  • Medication - including paracetamol and short-term use of anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen
  • Cold packs
  • Elastic supports or a splint
  • Steroid injections (reduces inflammation and is only recommended if RSI is caused by a specific condition such as carpal tunnel syndrome)

In some cases, physiotherapy can be offered in an effort to improve posture and teach people how to strengthen and relax their muscles.

How To Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

Risk assessments should be carried out prior to joining a company to make sure your area of work is suitable and comfortable for you. You can and should request a risk assessment if you haven't had one.

It is also important to take regular breaks throughout the day, and not just during your allotted lunchtime.

  • Be mindful and aware of your repetitive movements.
  • Move your body throughout the day and throughout the week, even if it's just for a short time.
  • Rest often so that you don't stress your muscles too much overtime
  • Learn to mix up repetitive tasks in order to reduce overuse of a particular movement
  • Switch hands or switch tasks every 20 to 30 minutes
  • Stretch repetitively stressed areas often and apply cool packs to potential problem areas
  • Be mindful about how to promote ergonomics within the workplace

For office workers, ensuring you have a correctly set up workstation can go a long way to preventing the development of a repetitive strain injury.

Ergonomic workstation setup

Ergonomic office equipment such as ergonomic office chairs and height-adjustable standing office desks can play a major role in prevention.

Ergonomic office chairs can be extremely effective when it comes to preventing RSI. They offer a wide range of adjustable functions to help you sit more comfortably. An ill-fitted office chair can put a strain on awkward places and contribute to bad posture. Everyone is built differently and having a chair that suits you personally can do wonders of good.

It may sound trivial, but learning and understand how to sit properly at a computer desk can be extremely beneficial to the prevention of a repetitive strain injury.

UK facts about Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI)

  • According to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, around 450,000 UK workers have upper limb RSI
  • 1 in 50 of all UK workers have reported an RSI condition
  • An estimated 5 million working days are lost in sick leave due to RSI each year
  • 10% of sick notes in London are written for RSI
  • The cost to UK industry is likely to be between £5 billion and £20 billion annually
  • Small businesses found that 1 in 5 staff were suffering from musculoskeletal injuries
  • 6 people in the UK leave their jobs due to an RSI condition every day
  • Woman aged between 29-62 are most likely to be affected

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