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Repetitive Strain Injury: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

By Apricus Health

21st July 2023

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a common condition impacting thousands of Australians every year. 

A repetitive strain injury is an umbrella term encompassing several different injuries - all caused by repetitive motion (or lack of motion) and the impact this has on your body. In 2023 - as people spend more times sedentary on their phones and laptops - RSIs have become increasingly prevalent in Australia. But despite how common these injuries are, most people are unsure how they happen and how to treat them.

In this article, we’ll provide comprehensive guide on repetitive strain injuries so you can spot the symptoms early, treat any injuries you have, and prevent future injury.

What is a Repetitive Strain Injury? 

A repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a condition caused by the overuse of specific muscles due to repetitive movements or maintaining uncomfortable and strenuous positions for extended periods. 

RSIs — often called Occupational Overuse Syndrome (OOS) or Cumalitve Trauma — are extremely common in Australian workplaces. Whether you work in warehouses and you're on your feet all day or you sit at your desk for 8 hours - you are susceptible to RSIs. 

Repetitive strain injuries most commonly occur in the following muscles, tendons, and nerves:

  • Neck 
  • Shoulders
  • Wrists
  • Hands
  • Fingers and thumbs
  • Elbows 
  • Forearms
  • Knees  

What are the Most Common Repetitive Strain Injuries? 

Repetitive strain injury encompasses many conditions, some more common than others. In 2023, these are the most common RSIs affecting Australian people:

  • Carpal tunnel (in the wrists and hands)
  • Tendonitis (particularly in the rotator cuff)
  • Tennis elbow
  • Bursitis
  • Trigger finger or trigger thumb

How Does a Repetitive Strain Injury Occur? 

RSIs develop over time. Particularly in work, when you sit or stand in the same position for 30, 40, or 50 hours a week, your muscles and tendons become strained. The repetitive motions involved in your work and the unnatural or uncomfortable positions you stay in for long periods cause your muscle tissue to tear and become inflamed. 

What Causes a Repetitive Strain Injury?

For many Australians, it is typically one of the below that causes a repetitive strain injury:

  • Poor posture
  • Prolonged periods sitting in the same position
  • Repetitive or sustained gripping or hand movements
  • Not taking enough breaks or moving throughout the day
  • Inadequate workstation ergonomics
  • Long periods in an unnatural position
  • Psychological stress 

While RSIs are most commonly a consequence of poor work environments, it is important to clarify that they can also develop from certain sports or hobbies, such as cycling, video games, gardening and craft

Who do Repetitive Strain Injuries Commonly Affect? 

RSIs can affect anyone who is not conscious of their daily habits and routines and allows themselves to fall into bad habits – whether that's poor posture or not taking any breaks during work. Generally, the below individuals suffer most frequently from RSIs:

  • Office workers who spend hours at their desk
  • Warehouse and assembly line workers
  • Musicians
  • Individuals that spend multiple hours every day on their phone
  • Avid video game enthusiasts

Repetitive Strain Injury Symptoms

RSIs develop gradually over time. Usually, a repetitive strain injury will start with mild discomfort - but the symptoms can become severe over time. The earliest signs of a repetitive strain injury will come while you perform the task that is causing the injury – such as typing on your laptop or playing your guitar. However, as your injury worsens and becomes more severe, you will experience consistent pain throughout the day and even when you’re resting.

The most common symptoms of a repetitive strain injury are:

  • Persistent or recurring pain
  • Weakness or numbness
  • Tenderness and sensitivity
  • Stiffness and reduced mobility
  • Throbbing or a tingling sensation

Repetitive Strain Injury Treatments 

The main goal when treating a repetitive strain injury is to alleviate the pain, reduce inflammation, and restore proper, pain-free function. Treatment for RSIs typically involves:

  • The RICE protocols - Resting the injury, icing the affected area to reduce inflammation, using compression bandages to prevent swelling, and elevating the injured area to relieve pain and reduce swelling.
  • Physical therapy – For example - if you've injured your hand, fingers, or wrists, dedicated hand therapy provides the rehabilitative and preventative care needed to get back to full health.
  • Ergonomic adjustments – A poor work set-up often causes RSIs, particularly in the neck, shoulders, and wrists. Fixing the root cause and redesigning your workstation will help treat your injury and prevent it from happening again.

How Long Will the Recovery from a Repetitive Strain Injury Take?

While mild RSI cases can usually be resolved in just a few weeks – the more severe injuries can sometimes last for months or even years when the problem is not addressed. The recovery duration of any repetitive strain injury depends on the severity of the injury and the quality of your rehabilitation and treatment plan

Is repetitive strain injury permanent?

While repetitive strain injuries can cause significant pain and discomfort over long periods, they are not usually permanent. Particularly if the injury is dealt with promptly using occupational therapy and physiotherapy, RSIs are often easily treatable.

However, if you ignore the symptoms, do not change your behaviour, and do not seek professional help – this can lead to chronic problems, requiring more drastic remedies such as surgery.

How Can I Prevent Repetitive Strain Injuries? 

Prevention and early action is always the best way to avoid permanent damage. Effective prevention techniques include:

  • Taking regular breaks at work
  • Maintaining good posture
  • Using ergonomically designed equipment
  • Following a tailored strength programme to develop key muscles and remove any muscle imbalances
  • Minimising psychological stress

Final Thoughts 

Despite being common, and sometimes debilitating – repetitive strain injuries are treatable and preventable. However, if they are not addressed early, they can lead to chronic pain.

Apricus Health is proud to provide comprehensive client-centric care to help people in Townsville and Northern Queensland manage and prevent RSIs from affecting their lives. Our multidisciplinary team are trained to provide repetitive strain injury treatments that work for you and help to get you back to living a pain-free life as soon as possible. Our therapists can not only assist with the hands on treatment and education, but also perform worksite assessments and ergonomic reviews to address the underlying cause.

For more information or to book click here!