If you’re experiencing pain, tingling, numbness or weakness in your hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck or back that doesn’t seem to go away, you may be suffering from a repetitive strain injury (RSI). RSI is an umbrella term for injuries to the musculoskeletal system caused by repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression or sustained awkward positions. Common examples include carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, trigger finger, tendinitis, and various other conditions.
RSIs are extremely common in modern workplaces and affect millions of people worldwide. They can occur in nearly any profession that involves repetitive motions of the upper body – including office work, manufacturing, cleaning, construction, agriculture, retail, healthcare, sports and more. The pain and impairment caused by these injuries can range from merely annoying to severely debilitating.
If you suspect you have an RSI, don’t ignore it. Early diagnosis and treatment is key to relieving symptoms and preventing long-term damage. Our experienced physiotherapists provide a comprehensive assessment and specialized treatments tailored to your unique condition. We’ll work closely with you to get to the root cause of your injury and help you recover as quickly as possible. In the meantime, here’s some more detailed information regarding repetitive strain injuries.
Symptoms often start gradually and become worse over time. They’re frequently activity-related, improving with rest but returning when you resume the aggravating motions. Early diagnosis and intervention is your best chance of avoiding long-term damage.
There are many different types of RSIs depending on the location and nature of the injury. Some of the most common repetitive strain injuries include:
Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve as it passes through the narrow carpal tunnel at the wrist. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, weakness and pain in the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. Carpal tunnel often occurs in people who perform repetitive hand motions like typing or manufacturing work.
Tennis elbow refers to inflammation of the tendons that attach to the bony lump on the outside of the elbow. Pain occurs on the outer side of the elbow and can radiate into the forearm and wrist. It’s commonly caused by repetitive movements, like grasping and twisting motions of the forearm. Interestingly enough, despite the name, tennis players account for less than 5% of cases.
This type of elbow injury affects the tendons on the inner side of the elbow instead of the outer side. Pain occurs at the bony lump on the inner elbow and can radiate into the forearm. It’s often caused by repetitive wrist flexing or forearm twisting. As with “tennis elbow”, the term “golfer’s elbow” is a bit of a misnomer since it can be caused by any activity requiring repetitive elbow movements.
De Quervain’s tenosynovitis involves inflammation and irritation of two key thumb tendons as they pass through the first dorsal compartment of the wrist. Symptoms include pain at the base of the thumb that worsens with grasping or thumb motions. It’s often caused by repetitive movements such as pinching, grasping, twisting and other hand motions. It’s commonly experienced by new mothers repeatedly lifting and caring for their baby.
Trigger finger (stenosing tenosynovitis) causes pain, catching, locking and popping sensations in the affected finger(s). It occurs when inflammation thickens the pulley tendons, preventing smooth gliding through the sheath. Forceful, repetitive grasping is often the cause. It can affect any finger, but most commonly the thumb, ring and middle fingers. Prompt diagnosis and treatment is important to relieve locking and improve function.
Guyon’s canal syndrome refers to compression of the ulnar nerve as it passes through the Guyon’s canal section of the wrist. It causes numbness, tingling and muscle weakness in the ring and little fingers. It often occurs in cyclists from repetitive gripping and vibration, but also results from occupations with repetitive tasks using similar hand motions.
Extensor tendinopathy refers to wear-and-tear damage and degeneration of the extensor tendons on the back of the forearm that pull the wrist, fingers and thumb backwards. It’s caused by repetitive motions like typing, gaming, cleaning, production work and playing instruments. Extensor tendinopathy leads to a dull ache and soreness on the back of the forearm, wrist or hand.
Flexor tendinopathy is similar to extensor tendinopathy, but it affects the flexor tendons on the palm side of the forearm. It causes an ache and soreness in the palm or underside of the forearm from overuse through repetitive grasping and gripping motions. It’s common in manufacturing workers, cleaners, mechanics, construction workers and those in similar occupations.
Myofascial (muscle) pain syndrome occurs when the overuse of certain muscle groups leads to the development of trigger points – highly irritable taut bands within the muscle fibres. It’s most common in the forearms, shoulders, neck and back through repetitive manual work and computer use. Myofascial (muscle) pain syndrome causes localized pain that can restrict movement and radiate in characteristic patterns.
Repetitive use of the thumb over many years can accelerate wear-and-tear osteoarthritis of the thumb joints. It causes painful, stiff and swollen thumb joints that are exacerbated by pinching and grasping activities. This type of osteoarthritis is more common in middle-aged and older adults as cartilage gradually thins over time.
Repetitive reaching, lifting and overhead motions can lead to fraying and inflammation of the rotator cuff tendons in the shoulder. This causes pain and weakness that worsens with shoulder use. It’s common in manual workers and athletes who perform a lot of overhead activity.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to the development of repetitive strain injuries:
Combinations of these factors along with inadequate rest periods often underlie many RSIs. Genetics and hand dominance can also play a role in some cases. True acute traumas like falls and impacts which cause different injury patterns are much less common.
Any repeated motions using your hands, wrists and arms can contribute to an RSI when done over long periods of time without rest. Common higher risk activities include:
Knowing if your work or hobbies involve high-risk repetitive motions is key for early intervention and for modifying activities to prevent a repetitive strain injury.
If you have symptoms of a repetitive strain injury, the first step is to get an accurate diagnosis from an experienced health professional. Part of this process will include detailed questions about:
Your assessment will also include a physical examination to assess your joints, muscles, nerves and ligaments for injury characteristics like swelling, pain, strength and range of motion. Special tests can help pinpoint specific tissue involvement and may include:
Early intervention with proper treatment can optimize your recovery and prevent your injury from becoming a chronic condition.
The primary goal of any RSI treatment is to relieve pain, improve range of motion, restore strength and prevent recurrence. This can be achieved through a combination of various treatment options. The specific approach will depend on the severity of your symptoms and the underlying cause of your repetitive strain injury. Here’s a quick overview of treatment options:
The right combination of these approaches tailored to your unique injury promotes optimal healing. The key is not to delay in seeking help. Early RSI treatment enhances recovery. The longer you wait with ongoing symptoms, the harder they become to resolve.
There is generally no risk involved with treating injuries from repetitive strain injury. Of course, it’s important to speak with an experienced healthcare professional to obtain a proper diagnosis and a customized treatment plan. This will ensure you’re using the most appropriate treatment options based on your specific condition and needs.
If you perform repetitive manual tasks for work or leisure and are experiencing any of the following, you should seek professional help:
At Physiomed, our experienced physiotherapists are experts in assessing and treating all types of RSIs. We will conduct a thorough assessment to pinpoint the source of your condition and will develop a customized treatment plan using proven techniques to relieve your symptoms and restore your functionality so that you can get back to living life on your terms.
Don’t live with the pain and the restrictions of a repetitive strain injury. Contact us today to book your assessment and let us show you why, at Physiomed, Healthier Starts Here.