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What is RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury)?

What is an RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury)?

Michelle Wilson
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If you spend the majority of your day working on a computer, you may be vulnerable to getting a repetitive strain injury, otherwise known as an RSI. The first historical description of this affliction was written in 1700 by Italian doctor Bernardino Ramazzini, known as the father of occupational medicine [1]. He described more than 20 categories of RSI he saw in Italian laborers.
In the modern world, one of the underlying reasons why workers suffer an RSI is still due to manual labor and the repeated actions associated with it. But as computers and other digital devices have taken hold as a dominating influence in our daily lives, people are acquiring RSIs from repetitive digital tasks like computing and texting more than ever [2].
Although you can get an RSI as an athlete or through manual labor, we’ll focus on repetitive strain injuries that occur in an office context, why they happen, and the steps you can take to reduce your risk of this common health issue.

What causes a repetitive strain injury?

We tend to think of injuries as a sudden, sometimes violent event, but many office workers may not realize that the everyday actions of working on a computer can quickly add up. The repeated strain computing puts on your muscles, tendons, and bones are an insidious force that can result in pain and sometimes permanent damage if you don’t take steps to correct the causes [3].
In addition, repetitive actions in one part of your body can easily affect muscles and tendons in another part, creating an even bigger issue. Add on mental stress and monotony and you’ve got a snowball effect that can intensify the symptoms of RSIs [4].
Here are some reasons why you might find yourself with a repetitive strain injury, especially one that affects your hands, wrists, or arms.

If you...

  • Lack the training to safely accomplish your work
  • Lack a physical variety of work tasks
  • Have bad posture
  • Have a pre-existing condition
  • Use repeated arm, wrist, and hand motions
  • Work at a desk ill-suited for your body
  • Work too quickly
  • Don’t take adequate breaks
  • Keep your muscles in a prolonged, locked position
  • Work in colder conditions
These are all risk factors that mean you’re more likely to get an RSI [5].

What are common symptoms of an RSI?

Symptoms change on a case-by-case basis and can range in severity from mild to debilitating. There are some warning signs your body sends if you’re starting to develop an RSI [6].
  • Muscle cramps
  • Loss of dexterity or clumsiness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Sensitivity to cold and heat
  • Burning sensation or soreness
  • Pins and needles, tingling, numbness
  • Stiff, inflexible joints
  • Aching or throbbing pain
  • Tenderness at the site of inflammation

What are some common RSIs?

The most common RSIs that affect workers include the following [7].

  • Bursitis: The bursa serves as a cushion between your muscles, joints, tendons, and bones. When it becomes inflamed, it’s referred to as bursitis.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS): CTS is under the umbrella of musculoskeletal disorders which make up 32 percent of private-sector absences from work according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [8]. It’s caused by continual compression and constriction of the median nerve in your wrist and arm which can easily happen if you’re using poor form while typing and computing.
  • Epicondylitis: Also known as tennis elbow, this condition can occur from overuse of the muscles and tendons at the site where tendons and bones connect.
  • Rotator cuff syndrome: Rotator cuff syndrome can develop from irritation of the muscles and tendons in the shoulder joint.
  • Tendonitis: This injury happens when a tendon is irritated and inflamed. Runners, for example, may experience tendonitis in their knees or in their Achilles’ heel.
  • Trigger finger: A condition in the finger that causes stiffness, pain, and the feeling of the finger ‘locking’ when bending and straightening.
  • Nerve entrapment disorders: Repetitive motions and pressure on the median nerve resulting in damage from nerve constriction.
  • Ulnar tunnel syndrome: This affects the ring and pinky fingers and causes numbness and pain from continuous compression of the ulnar nerve.

How long does an RSI take to heal?

It depends on the severity of your RSI, but it can take a few weeks to several months before your RSI heals.
Medication, physical therapy, and bracing are typical courses of treatment. Surgery is the last option for symptoms that don’t respond to ongoing treatment and preventative measures [9]. Remember, if you think you have a repetitive strain injury, consult with a physician for professional diagnosis and medical advice for corrective steps to resolve the injury.

How should I prevent an RSI when I’m using a computer?

The best way to prevent repetitive strain injuries is to ergonomically optimize your workspace, change tasks often, take adequate breaks, and practice good posture throughout the day [10]. This may mean you need to invest in supportive accessories like a lumbar pillow, a footrest, or other ergonomic additions that help reduce musculoskeletal stress [11].

Tips for setting up an ergonomic office

  1. Desk: If you have a traditional desk, your knees should be at a ninety-degree angle and fit comfortably underneath the top. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground when you’re sitting normally. For standing desks, keep your shoulders relaxed, back straight, and allow your elbows to naturally fold at a ninety-degree position.
  2. Keyboard: Keep your wrists and hands straight in front of you in a neutral position. Avoid excessive reaching or straining by keeping your mouse and mousepad close to you.
  3. Monitor: Your monitor should be around an arm’s length away from you and 2-3 inches below eye level. This helps fight glare from bright office lighting directly entering your eyes and helps to prevent straining your neck muscles.
  4. Supportive chair cushions: Make sure you have both lumbar and pelvic support to keep your spine aligned as you work.
Avoiding a repetitive strain injury in the office is not always easy but with some modifications to your workspace and mindful practices, you can increase the likelihood of working in comfort.
[1] U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health; Bernardino Ramazzini: The Father of Occupational Medicine
[2] Occupational Health & Safety; The Future of Computer Ergonomics
[3] Harvard RSI Action; Minor RSI Problems
[10] U.S. Department of Labor; Ergonomics

About the Author

Michelle Wilson is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Michelle is a content creation specialist writing for a variety of industries, including tech trends and media news.

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