Repetitive strain injury

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at September 22, 2016
StartDiseasesRepetitive strain injury

Repetitive strain injuries (RSI) are injuries that occur when overuse and general repetitive movement causes injury to the muscle, nerves, or tendons of a specific area of the body. Generally, these injuries are associated with the hands and arms, but can occur in other areas of the body such as the neck and shoulders. Due to repetitive strain injury generally being associated with the hands and arms, it is also known as work-related upper limb disorder.


Definition & Facts

Repetitive strain injuries are usually tied to people that perform repetitive tasks at work, such as typists, musicians, and people working in factories. There are two forms of repetitive strain disorder; they are type 1 and type 2 repetitive strain injuries. Type 1 is associated with symptoms that fit in with well-defined syndromes, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Type 2 RSI has symptoms that are not associated with well-defined syndromes.

Symptoms & Complaints

RSI causes different forms of pain in the affected area. These type of injuries cause aching and tenderness in the associated area. RSI may also cause stiffness or throbbing, as well as numbness. In addition, repetitive strain injuries can cause weakness or cramps.

In most situations, repetitive strain injuries gradually develop. The symptoms will be mild at first, and the symptoms are only present while performing the task causing the injury, and they go away when the injured body part is rested. However, if the repetitive task is continued and treatment is not received, the symptoms will become more severe, and they may always be present.


Repetitive stain injury is caused by the overuse of muscles and tendons, usually in the arm of the body. The main cause of RSI is performing repetitive tasks, usually associated with work tasks, such as typing and factory work. Performing high-intensity tasks without rest for an extended period of time has also been connected with repetitive strain injuries.

Poor posture contributes to developing RSI. This is especially true in cases of people that spend the majority of their time working on their computers and typing. Typing while not using the proper posture is a common cause of carpal tunnel, which is a form of RSI type 1.

Frequently working in cold temperatures has been shown to increase the risk of developing work-related upper limb disorder. In addition, working on equipment that causes vibrations worsens symptoms of these injuries and makes them more likely to occur. Finally, stress has been shown to contribute to the development of RSI.

Repetitive strain injuries are cumulative injuries, so they are not caused by a single event. One day of performing repetitive tasks or using poor posture is not going to cause a repetitive strain injury; however, if a person continues to perform these tasks or using the poor posture, they are likely to develop.

Diagnosis & Tests

For most forms of repetitive strain injury, diagnosis is difficult because the symptoms of RSI are common to numerous other conditions. However, some of the more well-defined syndromes associated with work-related upper limb disorder have tests linked to them.

Carpal tunnel is one of the more well-known forms of RSI. In order to diagnose it, doctors sometimes use Tinel’s sign to detect the irritated nerve, which is done by tapping on the nerve to provoke a tingling sensation response. In addition, X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)s can be performed to show nerves that have been compressed and affected by RSI. Nerve testing may also be performed on those that believe they have RSI.

Aside from these methods, the main form of diagnosis for repetitive strain injury is through getting a detailed patient history. These allow the doctor to get an informed account of a patient’s day-to-day activity and pinpoint the cause of the pain. In addition to the patient history, doctors usually perform blood tests to eliminate other possible disorders that could be causing the symptoms, such as arthritis or thyroid issues.

Treatment & Therapy

Because of the varied nature of repetitive strain injuries, treatment options differ depending on the exact issue. However, there are some common forms of treatment. In many cases, if stopping the repetitive task is not an issue, it is suggested to help prevent further issue. If it is not a realistic option, making sure that the task is being performed with the best posture and technique is essential.

In addition, certain medications are offered to combat with the pain associated with RSI. Usually, these medications are things such as anti-inflammatory painkillers and muscle relaxants. In some cases, applying hot or cold packs to the injured area is suggested to relieve some of the pain. Splints and braces are commonly recommended to help with the issue. They are usually used to stabilize the wrist to help relieve pressure on nerves.

Some forms of physical therapy or exercises may be suggested to help relieve the pain. These exercises and therapy sessions are also used to strengthen and help heal injured muscles. In circumstances where inflammation is present in the injured part, corticosteroid injections may be given. If none of these simpler treatments help with the issue, surgery might be the only answer.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

One of the main ways to prevent RSI or the progression of the disorder is to stop performing repetitive tasks. However, this is usually not an option because many cases of RSI are caused from work. In this case, it is essential that any repetitive task performed is done in the correct way.

Taking breaks and standing up and stretching to help break up repetitive tasks lessens the likelihood of developing RSI. In addition, exercising and eating healthy reduces a person’s chance of getting a repetitive strain injury.

Following ergonomic guidelines and sitting with proper posture while performing repetitive tasks helps to prevent the development of these work-related injuries. Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, may also be beneficial for preventing the development of RSI because it helps to reduce stress, which is something that increases the likelihood of injuring oneself.