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Repetitive Strain Injuries – Are you a victim of it?

Repetitive Strain Injuries is really a blanket name for health problems that result from over-use or misuse of muscles, tendons, and nerves. Unlike strains and sprains, which occurs from a single incident, RSIs develop over time. Therefore, repetitive strain injuries are also called Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTD).

Other names include repetitive stress syndrome, occupational overuse syndrome and repetitive motion disorders.

RSIs are the most common form of occupational (workplace) illness; some so crippling that sufferers may require surgery or face permanent disability. Though RSI is not localized to any one type of job, the odds are higher for occupations that involve repetitive work, such as, working at the assembly line, food processing jobs, or at visual display terminals. It can take years to develop and therefore tend to strike when the worker is in his prime of career usually around the age of 40.

Occupation-related RSIs are caused by any combination of the following factors:



Doing the same motion over & over without allowing your body to rest & recover from the stress and strain.


Awkward or fixed posture

Working in awkward positions i.e. repeated overhead motions; reaching down and behind your body; lifting & twisting; or stay in a fixed/ sustained position for a long time.


Fast pace

Having to work quickly.


Forceful movements

Using a lot of effort & strength to do the job i.e. lifting, pulling, pushing and even small movements like pounding fingers on keyboard.


Frequent & difficult lifting


In a badly designed job, lifting even 10kg can cause injuries. Loads over 30kg are always dangerous for one person to lift.

Excessive Vibration

Usually caused by power tools i.e. drills.


Insufficient recovery time

Inadequate rest breaks.


What are the signs & symptoms of RSI?

RSIs can affect almost any part of the body, but they often occur in upper body. The most commonly affected body parts are the fingers, hands, wrists, elbows, arms, shoulders, back, and neck. One or more of the symptoms below may be present in the injured area:

  • Tenderness

  • Swelling

  • Aching

  • Electricity-like tingling and/or numbness Loss of joint movement

  • Weakness and decreased coordination of the injured body part

  • Crackling

  • Muscle spasms

Symptoms may occur at any time i.e. during work, immediately after work, or even many hours (or days) after work. Typically, one first experience symptoms when he is not working. For example, an injured worker may have no pain at work and wake up in the night with a painful neck or arm.

Jobs that pose a particularly high risk of RSI are:

  • Assembly line worker
  • Checkout scanner
  • Computer keyboard operator
  • Food handler
  • Garment worker
  • Hand tool operator
  • Machine operator
  • Materials handler
  • Meat packer

RSI symptoms can be mild, but they can also become so severe till activities of daily living become difficult to perform, including turning taps, opening a jar or getting dressed.


What are the most common RSIs?

There are many repetitive strain injuries, because many different parts of the body can be affected. However, most job-related repetitive strain injuries affect the upper part of the body- the spinal column, neck, shoulders, arms and hands.



Common RSI

What are they?


De Quervain’s syndrome also known as washerwoman’s sprain, radial styloid tenosynovitis




Inflammation of the tendons in the wrist that control the thumb.



Subacromial bursitis, also known as shoulder impingement syndrome


Occurs as a result of the subacromial bursa ( a fluid-filled sac) being squashed or ‘impinged’ between the rotator cuff muscles (Supraspinatus, Subscapularis, Infraspinatus and Teres Minor) and the collarbone, during repeated overhead shoulder movements.



Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS)


Results when the median nerve in the wrist is compressed between tendon and the bone, leading to inflammation. Sufferers usually experience numbness, tingling and pain in the thumb, index finger, middle finger and inner side of ring finger. CTS typically affects people who overuse their hands on piano or computer keyboards, giving rise to injuries to hand and wrist.



Hand-arm vibration syndrome, also known as Raynaud’s Phenomenon


Disorder of blood vessels, usually in fingers or hands, which causes the affected area to lose color and feel cold or painful.



Thoracic outlet syndrome, a neurovascular disorder


Compression of the nerves and blood vessels in the shoulder, causing numbness in the fingers and weakening of the pulse. It can cause pain anywhere between the shoulder and the tips of the fingers. It results from the compression of blood vessels from activities that pull the shoulder back and down, such as carrying heavy bag packs and constant overhead motions such as stacking dishes or supplies.



Now that we understand symptoms and causes of RSIs, we will look at the prevention and management of RSI in Part II.



International Labour Organization. Listening to our pain. Preventing workplace injuries and illnesses through ergonomics. World of Work. No. 21, September/October 1997

National Education Association. Repetitive Stress Injuries Handbook –Education Support Professionals. Website:

New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Repetitive Stress Injuries Website:


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