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Repetitive stress injury or RSI is a term that describes a group of painful conditions caused by repeatedly performing a movement that causes physical stress on a particular body part. If you keep doing a specific action several hours a day, for multiple days in a row - like typing on the keyboard of your computer at work or training hard for an upcoming tennis tournament - the action places too much stress on the same parts of the body. Repetitive movements can cause injury in these areas if you don't allow ample time for recovery.
There are a many names and synonymous terms for repetitive stress injuries. To name a few: Repetitive stress disorder (RSD), Repetitive strain injury (also RSI), Repetitive strain disorder (RSD), Repetitive motion injury (RMI), Repetitive motion disorder (RMD), Repetitive injury, Overuse syndrome, Cumulative trauma disorder (CTD), and Musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). Each term has a similar definition with repetitive stress injury so it can practically be interchanged.
Who are at risk of having RSI?
If you are an athlete, or a person whose job (or hobby) involves making repetitive actions such as typing or clicking a computer mouse, you are at high risk of developing RSI.
Many years ago, repetitive stress injuries often affected adults over the age of 30, as a result of the normal wear and tear of aging. Today, however, the prevalence of using computers and devices for gaming and social networking has brought RSI to affect even young teenagers!
Symptoms of RSI
Repetitive stress injuries start from early symptoms like numbness or tingling sensation, usually in areas like the arms, hands, wrists or fingers. Symptoms can also include swelling, stiffness, and feeling of weakness.
You will notice that it will be painful to move the affected area, sometimes even causing you to wake up from your sleep at night. In severe cases of RSI, patients report that they cannot even wash their hair or hold a sheet of paper without experiencing excruciating pain. Some cases are so severe that they develop irreversible nerve damage.
Causes of repetitive stress injury
Aside from working on jobs that require you to perform a movement repetitively, there may also be other causes for RSI to develop. Injury can also develop from the following:
Trauma happens when a part of our body develops a tear, break, or inflammation due to an action that has caused discomfort, distress or damage to that area. Examples of repetitive stress injuries that can develop from trauma are Stress Fractures, Tennis Elbow, Tendonitis, Bursitis, and Shin Splints.
Now, our body has its natural way of protecting itself from further injury, so while it heals, it reinforces the damaged area to make it stronger and more resilient. Examples of this reinforcement would be a callus formed from a wound or bigger muscles from working out (you actually tear your muscles when you exercise so that more fibers will grow back).
Sometimes reinforcement can be more harmful and can cause deformities if not given attention. Example, it can tighten injured ligaments and cause it to reduce its range of motion, making it more prone to injury. Some examples of reinforcement injuries are Trigger Finger and Bone Spurs.
Poor Posture and Bad Body Mechanics
Even if you do not subject yourself to trauma or repetitive activity, you can still develop repetitive stress injuries from merely having poor posture or bad body mechanics.
Your body is meant to move at a certain way. Every joint in your body has its own range of motion. You skeleton provides the framework, your muscles move the skeleton, and your tendons and ligaments hold them all together. When you perform an action with poor posture, your body is forced to move in a more difficult way. This causes strain and overextension - some of the major culprits of RSIs. For example, walking with your head tilted forward will cause more strain in your neck than when you stand straight with your head balanced.
Bad posture and body mechanics also cause poor blood circulation, which is essential in the delivery of oxygen and fuel throughout the body. With poor circulation you're body is forced to function less efficiently, placing more strain on it.
Repetitive stress injuries aren't just caused by performing an action, it can also be caused by staying in the same position for several hours.
When you sit on your desk, for example, for 8 hours straight without standing up for breaks, you can be hampering proper blood circulation and place strain on your body. Adults who work on computers several hours a day can also develop an RSI called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Remember, you're body is designed to move so ensure that you stand up and walk around every few minutes to keep your blood circulating.
Poor Overall Health
Blood circulation is greatly affected when you are unhealthy, especially if you're overweight. Imagine if you were your own two feet: Think of the excess pounds that you're tasked to carry everyday while you're getting less fuel-giving blood circulation. This makes you susceptible to strain and repetitive trauma.
Examples of RSIs
There are several conditions that fall under repetitive stress injuries and the list will be too long to discuss. But just for you to know the more popular examples, here are some of the most common repetitive stress injuries that can affect you:
Carpal tunnel syndrome. Common amongst heavy users of computers and gaming devices, carpal tunnel syndrome is characterized by swelling inside a narrow "tunnel" formed by bone and ligament found in the wrist. Nerves that conduct sensory and motor impulses to and from the hand surround this tunnel, so the swelling causes numbness, tingling, weakness and pain. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the classic RSI caused by repeated motion like typing, clicking your computer mouse or pressing buttons on your gaming devices.
Bursitis. It is the inflammation of the "bursa", a fluid-filled sac that serves as your joint's cushion. Symptoms of bursitis can be characterized by pain and swelling in the joints. You are more susceptible to bursitis if you often reach for something too high, carry overloaded backpacks, or overuse a joint (like your knee or shoulder) during heavy training in sports.
Tennis Elbow. Scientifically known as "Epicondylitis", this form of RSI affects the point where the bones join at the elbow. Symptoms of tennis elbow include pain and swelling I trhe affected area. As suggested by the name, Epicondylitis frequently occurs in tennis players because of their heavy, repetitive use of this part of their body.
Tendonitis. Tendons are rope-like bands of tissue that connect muscles to bones. Where there is tearing and swelling in the tendons, you get tendonitis. You usually develop tendonitis after performing activities that overstretch or overuse a tendon.
Osgood-Schlatter disease. This is a common cause of knee pain athletes whose sport involves long distance running. It also occurs in physically active teens that undergo a growth spurt. Frequent use and physical stress can cause inflammation in the knee, particularly at the area where the kneecap tendon attaches to the shinbone
Stress fractures. When you subject your bone to repeated stress from walking, running, or jumping, it can cause tiny cracks in the bone's surface to form called "stress fractures". Symptoms of stress fracture include debilitating pain while walking or performing the activity that caused the injury.
Patellor femoral syndrome. Repeated kneeling, squatting, and climbing flights of stairs can cause wear and tear of the kneecap cartilage. When this cartilage is soft or broken down and you still continue to perform the intensity of these activities, pain around the knee is often felt.
Shin splints. When pain is felt in front of the lower leg (the shin area), you may have an RSI called "shin splints". Shin splint injury is common among runners and is characterized by pain in the shin when your foot is in contact with the ground.
Treatment of RSI
The best treatment you can give yourself when you have a repetitive stress injury is to completely stop doing the activity that brought it in the first place. However, since this is most likely an unacceptable treatment (you can tell an athlete to quit the team or tell a secretary to stop working on the computer), there are ways to at least minimize the pain and suffering caused by the injury.
Make sure to see your doctor as soon as you feel pain brought by RSIs. You may be given medication to address the pain and inflammation. You may also be given braces or casts to support fractures or sprains. Once healed, you may be advised to go through physical therapy to regain your flexibility and range of motion.
Find a way to avoid the activity that exacerbates the swelling and pain. If you're an athlete, explain your situation to your coach and ask for a leave of absence if your RSI is severe. If you do have to continue training, have your program downgraded to a lighter workout so as not to strain your already injured part. If you are an employee, talk to your boss about your injury and request for a change of task, if possible. If there is no choice but to continue your job, make sure that you use ergonomic equipment (i.e. equipment specially designed for comfort) to reduce the strain. For example, if you have carpal tunnel syndrome due to clicking your mouse, you can buy a mouse pad that has a gel or padded wrist rest. Instead of using the mouse all the time, figure out ways to use your keyboard to do the same task.
Do light exercises to ease the symptoms and promote better blood circulation. Some people report that practicing relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga have helped relieve stress and tension. Stretching also increases flexibility that minimizes risk of injury.
The goal of treatment is to relieve pain and swelling and to prevent your RSI from getting worse. Your speedy recovery will really depend on you - make sure you follow your doctor's instructions and be conscious of applying any form of strain in your problem area.
An ounce of prevention is better (and cheaper) than a pound of cure. Why wait till you have a full blown injury when you can start taking care of yourself today?
Here are some suggestions that can help avoid development of repetitive stress injuries:
Improve your posture - when you have no choice but perform repetitive tasks for a living, the best you can do is to make sure you are using appropriate posture while doing so. When typing, make sure you're not leaning forward to your computer. Adjust your computer screen and the height of your seat so that your forehead is aligned with the computer screen. Feet should be flat on the floor with knees at lightly higher level than your lower hips (to test this. Place a pencil on your knee - if it rolls towards your waist, then you're in a good position). Fingers and wrists should be at 90-degree angle with your upper arm.
For office workers, use ergonomic equipment - as mentioned earlier, ergonomic office equipment can help you maintain a position with better support. An ergonomic office chair would provide lower back support as compared to a regular chair with a straight back rest. Use a keyboard that has a curved design as this conforms more to the natural placement of your hands and fingers.
For athletes, remember to warm up, cool down and stretch before and after training - don't be a fool thinking that you're already used to performing your sport so you wouldn't need warm ups, cool downs and stretches before and after your training. Injury is prevented when your muscles and joints are hot and conditioned before extensive use. Also make sure your sports equipment fit you properly (some injuries are caused by ill-fitting shoes or using the wrong equipment size).
Exercise and eat healthy - this not only keeps your body at optimum shape, it also lowers your susceptibility to RSIs significantly.
Rest when tired - don't overwork your body. There is a reason why you feel you need to take a nap, it's telling you that you need to recuperate and recharge.
Vary your activities daily - repetition of the same activity is the main problem why we develop repetitive stress injuries. If you can do all computer work on Monday and schedule all your meetings on Tuesdays, this may help prevent computer-related injury.
In any kind of activity you do, make sure to take a break every 30 minutes - this allows your body to recover, move other muscles that have not been used, and it also encourages blood to circulate properly again.
Repetitive stress injury is painful and debilitating. It is also something that can be prevented. In this day and age of stressful jobs and fast paced lifestyles, it is all the more imperative that we make time to attend our bodies' needs. Listen to what your body is telling you and it will grant you with a longer, better quality of life.