Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is the general term used to describe pain felt in the muscles or tendons as a direct result of overuse. It usually refers to pain felt in the wrist or elbow and is relatively common amongst office workers who spend long hours sitting at a desk working on a computer, or those who complete repetitive tasks in their work.
While it is difficult to find statistics on RSI (most studies seem to lump all musculoskeletal problems together) the digital age is causing a hike in work-related upper limb disorders, including RSI.
In this article I’ll be looking at ways to manage RSI in the workplace, including tips for managing the condition, the types of treatment available and how to prevent it.
What exactly is RSI?
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is inflammation caused by the overuse of muscles and tendons in the body. Pain can be felt in the fingers, palms, wrists, forearms and/or shoulders. The nature of the pain can vary from person to person, but is sometimes described as burning pain, shooting pain or general aching. RSI sufferers can also experience tingling, a loss of sensation, a loss of strength and persistent cramp.
There are certain activities or jobs thought to increase the risk of RSI, such as repetitive activities, carrying out high intensity tasks for prolonged periods without rest, and poor posture or working in an awkward position, such as that caused by sitting at a desk with a poor workstation set up.
It’s important to recognise that repetitive movements in one area of the body can cause muscle strain and tension in another part.
What causes RSI?
The three main risk factors for RSI are poor technique when performing a task, poor posture and overuse. You may be more at risk for developing RSI if you:
- Use a computer for more than 4 hours per day
- Have poor workstation set up
- Work at a computer all day
- Have a job requiring repetitive forceful exertions
- Use machinery that vibrates
- Carry heavy loads
- Don’t take frequent breaks from repetitive tasks
- Suffer from loose joints or hypermobility
- Don’t take regular exercise
- Already suffer from arthritis, diabetes or another chronic health condition
- Have an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle
- Are overweight
- Suffer from stress
- Work in cold temperatures
How can you prevent RSI at work?
The most important advice to follow when it comes to the prevention of RSI is the same basic advice given for the prevention of all diseases. Eat healthily, exercise regularly, minimise stress in your life and take regular breaks from repetitive tasks and/or computer use.
If you are sitting at a desk, your workstation should be set up ergonomically. British journalist and RSI sufferer, Roger Radford says that posture is the most important factor in RSI prevention. Radford has benefitted hugely from a chair ergonomically designed for RSI sufferers.
Make sure your desk is set up properly and that you are sitting correctly. Ask your employer for a workstation assessment. There are various types of non-standard keyboards and using an ergonomic mouse can help you to work with your wrist in a more neutral position.
Most important of all is to take regular breaks from your desk. This not only helps to prevent RSI, it improves cognitive function and improves productivity.
How is RSI treated?
The treatments for RSI include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain killers (NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen), muscle relaxants and even anti-depressants in some cases. If sleeping is affected, sleeping tablets are also sometimes prescribed.
- Heat packs or ice packs can be used in alternation or separately. Cold packs are generally best for areas that are inflamed as the cold can ease pain and reduce any swelling. Always wrap cold packs in a tea towel before applying to skin. Apply for 15-20 minutes at a time with a break of 1 hour between applications.
If a cold pack doesn’t help, you could try a heat pack or hot water bottle instead.
- Foam splints can be used to support wrists, fingers/thumbs or elbows, but be careful not to rely on these as they can prevent natural movement.
- Physiotherapy can be helpful as this will include exercises required to strengthen muscles. Advice will also be given by your practitioner on how to adapt and prevent symptoms worsening.
- Exercise, such as yoga.
- Stress reduction and relaxation techniques, such as mediation and mindfulness.
- In extreme cases, steroid injections may be recommended by your GP.
- Surgery is occasionally used to correct problems with specific tendons.
In most cases, changes to work routine, regular breaks, specific exercises and a reduction in stress can help to minimise pain and damage. Most important of all is your posture. Your employer has a legal duty to prevent work-related RSI.