Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is the aches and pain in your body caused by repetitive movements or poor posture while doing certain activities (including work). It’s also called occupational overuse injury and overuse syndrome. RSI mainly affects your wrists and hands.
You can get RSI from a wide range of occupations and activities. You may develop RSI if you use a computer regularly or if your job involves repetitive movements. RSI may also be linked with hobbies such as painting, and with sports such as tennis and golf. If you think you have RSI, it’s important not to ignore it.
RSI has many possible causes. These include:
If the type of work you do may be increasing your chances of getting RSI, you can take some steps to prevent the symptoms. Speak to your employer about this.
RSI can cause a wide range of symptoms, including pain and tenderness in your muscles and joints. Other common RSI symptoms are:
You may not have any physical signs such as swelling, even though your body feels painful. The pain may get worse if you don’t get any treatment. It may get so bad that you’re not able to do your work or usual activities. If your symptoms get better when you rest, it’s worth thinking about whether you can change your activities or adapt your work environment. Speak to your employer or occupational health advisor for advice. If your symptoms of RSI continue despite making changes to your work or activities, make an appointment with your GP.
RSI isn’t always easy to diagnose because there’s no specific test for it. If you see your GP with symptoms of RSI, they’ll ask about your symptoms and examine you. They may also ask you about your medical history and what type of work you do. Tell your GP if you’ve noticed that certain activities could be causing your symptoms or making them worse.
Your GP may suggest you have some tests. These are to see if an underlying health condition could be causing your symptoms. This may include blood tests and nerve conduction studies, for example.
You may notice your RSI symptoms improve when you rest the affected part of your body. Try having a complete break from the activities that trigger your symptoms, and then gradually reintroduce them once your symptoms have settled down. If this isn’t practical, it may help if you limit the amount of time you spend on these activities. Keep moving the affected part of your body in a way that doesn’t cause pain to help stretch the muscles and keep them strong.
If your symptoms are related to your work, your first step should be to speak to your manager or supervisor. Your employer may refer you to an occupational therapist or occupational health advisor for help and advice. By looking at your working environment and how you work, you may discover which activity is causing the problem. Carry on working if you can, but try to take steps to reduce how much time you spend doing this activity. If you can't stop or reduce the activity that’s causing the problem, take regular short breaks to stretch and move your arms and hands. You could try to divide up your time by doing different tasks so that you don't spend long periods doing the same thing. If you use a computer, you may be able to change your mouse or keyboard to relieve pain. You can buy specially designed ones that make your movements as natural as possible. There isn’t much solid proof that they work but some people find them useful.
You may find that if you apply cold packs to the affected part of your body, it helps to ease pain and reduce swelling. When your symptoms flare up, put an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel on the area. Use the cold pack or ice for up to 20 minutes at a time. Don’t apply ice directly to your skin because ice can harm skin. If ice doesn’t work for you, you could try heat treatment instead. Gently hold a heat pack or hot water bottle against the affected part of your body. Alternatively, try a warm bath.
Over-the-counter painkillers, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) and paracetamol may help to ease your symptoms. You can buy these painkillers from pharmacies and supermarkets, but don’t take them regularly without your GP’s advice. Taking painkillers regularly may stop the pain, but you may carry on doing the activity that’s causing your symptoms without realising it. This could make your condition worse in the long term.
If self-help measures and any changes you make at work don’t help to improve your symptoms, you may need to see a physiotherapist. They’ll show you how to rest your body to ease your pain. They’ll also help you to stretch and strengthen any affected muscles with safe gentle exercise, and to sit or work with good posture.
If other treatments haven’t worked or you have inflammation in a specific tendon, your GP may suggest you have a corticosteroid injection.
If your GP suspects your symptoms are caused by a specific health condition such as carpal tunnel syndrome, they may refer you to a surgeon who specialises in this area.
To prevent RSI, try to limit your repetitive actions, especially if they involve using heavy equipment or vibration. You’ll also need to improve your working posture and environment and take regular breaks. Employers have a legal duty to prevent work-related RSI or stop existing RSI from getting worse. This is under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. If you use a computer at work, you’re protected by the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992. If you don’t take some action, your RSI may get so bad that you can no longer do your job properly. Most injuries are caused by poor posture, working in an unusual or uncomfortable way or working with heavy equipment. Your employer should carry out a risk assessment by watching how you work and look for possible problems. They may then need to: