An introduction to RSI
‘Repetitive Strain Injury’ is a loose term describing a variety of conditions which cause pain in the muscles, tendons and joints of the body. The problem mainly affects the upper body, with the wrists being the most common site of injury, and usually results from performing a movement many times over a period of time.
Unlike normal muscular strain or sprains which tend to come about after a single traumatic incident such as a fall, the development of RSI is not quite so clear cut. We still do not know why some people develop the condition and others don’t whilst performing exactly the same task.
What causes RSI?
Most cases of RSI are caused by overuse of a limb or joint when performing repeated movements – for example, working on a keyboard for longer periods of time than you would normally.
Many factors can contribute to RSI. A poor posture will cause you to be more likely to develop symptoms, particularly if your muscles are tense. RSI is more common among people experiencing stress.
Even those used to physical activity can experience RSI – for example spending a long time holding a vibrating object, such as a pneumatic drill.
If you are experiencing RSI, it is worth examining your everyday tasks to determine which of these is most likely to be causing your symptoms.
Which joints are commonly affected?
The upper limbs (forearm, elbow, the wrist) are most commonly affected by RSI. These are the joints put under the most strain when working, whether at a desk or performing physical labour. Maintaining good posture and lifting techniques are important steps towards minimising your risk of RSI.
The wrist is particularly prone to RSI and is perhaps the most common joint affected nowadays, with the widespread use of computers at home and work. It is a flexible joint and bears much of the strain we put through our hands, arms and shoulders.
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What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms of RSI include:
- A feeling of restlessness in the joint
- Stiffness or cramp
Symptoms usually develop over a period of time. Initially, they may ‘creep in’, only noticeable when carrying out a specific movement. These early symptoms may worsen and develop further, causing prolonged pain, no matter what you are doing with your affected joint.
If left untreated, the symptoms of RSI are likely to worsen. It is advisable to seek treatment as early as possible as this will improve your chances of full recovery.
What treatments are available?
- Rest – this is the first step that should be taken. Stop the activity causing symptoms and give the affected joint a break. If you have developed RSI as a result of your workplace then look to change your working environment or find a way of supporting your joint better
- Look after your injury – ice packs help with swelling and warm compresses help relax the structures in a joint. Alternating the two is often said to be most effective. Additionally, wearing a support or a splint when carrying out the task causing you problems can help. However, you do not want the joint to stiffen so, when not at work, take the support off to allow your joint to move freely
- Physiotherapy – this provides exercises and advice on how to strengthen and relax your muscles. It may also be helpful in establishing a good posture if this is contributing to your problem
- Alexander Technique – this retrains your postural habits and teaches you to stand and sit better. It also tackles your breathing which has a bearing on how relaxed you are in any particular situation
- Steroids – a specific condition such as carpal tunnel syndrome causing your RSI may require treatment using steroid injections. This is often the treatment of last resort and used for persistent cases as steroids can be associated with side-effects
- Herbal remedies – there are certain herbal remedies which can help in treating muscle and joint problems such as RSI. They may be used as the sole form of treatment, or alongside self-help measures such as rest and support. Devil’s Claw is a herb which is used internally for general aches or pains in muscles and joints, and may be helpful for RSI. Atrogel arnica gel can be applied externally to the painful area, and will help with pain and swelling in muscles and stiffness in joints.