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How to Deal with Repetitive Strain Injury

  • Jun 7 2023

A man sits on a couch icing his knee. A repetitive strain injury (RSI), also called an overuse injury, is a common soft tissue injury that builds up over time. This happens if you repeat a motion over and over again, resulting in damage to the tissue. Work activities and sports are common ways you can get an RSI.

Preventing repetitive strain injury is optimal, but not always possible. An orthopedist can diagnose your RSI, provide exercises for repetitive strain injury, and provide tools for managing pain and preventing future injuries as part of an individualized treatment plan.

What Are the Causes of Repetitive Strain Injury?

There are many different types of RSIs that affect various parts of the body, but they all have the same underlying cause. RSIs are caused by repeatedly moving parts of the body in a specific way. Certain factors exacerbate this and increase the risk of developing an overuse injury:

  • Repeated motions without breaks or interruption
  • Overexertion and muscle fatigue
  • An unnatural, non-ergonomic motion or position
  • Poor posture

Who is at Risk for RSIs?

A young woman with a racquet on a tennis court holds her elbow in pain. Anyone who repeats the same motion over and over again is at risk for a repetitive motion injury. This happens commonly in the workplace. For instance, typing on a keyboard all day or grasping a tool with the same grip can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Athletes are also at an elevated risk for overuse injuries because they engage in repeated motions, like pitching a baseball or swinging a tennis racquet. Anyone who engages in a sport or hobby with repetitive motions can develop an RSI. This includes amateur sports, gardening, knitting, and more.

How to Know if You Have Repetitive Strain Injury

The only real way to know you have an RSI is for a doctor to diagnose it. Know the symptoms and consider seeing your doctor or an orthopedist if they interfere with your work and other activities.

Symptoms of RSI

If you have symptoms that don’t resolve with rest, it’s probably time to see a specialist. Repetitive strain injury symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Loss of strength or flexibility
  • Swelling

Symptoms often get worse with time and are more noticeable when you engage in the specific motion.

Diagnosing RSIs

A man holds a splinted wrist and hand while sitting in front of a computer. A doctor or specialist can often diagnose an overuse injury by reviewing symptoms and asking about your work and other activities. They will likely perform a physical exam as well to test your range of motion, your strength, and to check for any pain or inflammation. Additionally, your doctor might order an MRI or another imaging test to get a better look at the tissue in question.

Repetitive Strain Injury Treatment

Treatment for an RSI usually begins with conservative, non-surgical strategies. Repetitive strain injury stretching, icing, and resting are often enough for healing. If these fail to bring relief, you could be a good candidate for surgery.

Can Repetitive Strain Injury Be Cured?

With the right treatment, most RSIs can be cured. It takes time and patience, though. If you overexert an RSI and cause more strain, you could cause a more serious soft tissue injury, such as a tendon tear.

How long it takes to heal an overuse injury depends on several factors. More severe injuries will take longer to heal. The more closely you follow your specialist’s treatment plan and guidelines, the quicker recovery will be.

Non-Surgical Interventions

Non-surgical treatments are always preferred when treating overuse injuries. They include:

  • Rest
  • Avoiding or modifying the motion causing the strain
  • Pain and anti-inflammatory medications
  • Exercises and stretches, often directed by a physical therapist
  • Steroid injections
  • Wrapping or using splints
  • Reducing stress

Surgery for RSIs

Surgery to treat overuse injuries is not typical, but is sometimes required. If an RSI continues to cause you pain and interfere with your work or other aspects of your life after a sufficient amount of treatment time, you might need surgery.

The type of surgery depends on the location and severity of the injury. Procedures can often be done on an outpatient basis with minimally invasive techniques.

Avoiding Repetitive Strain Injury

Smart and safe practices in sports, at work, and when doing hobbies can help prevent RSIs:

  • Take frequent breaks when performing repetitive tasks. If possible, break it up into smaller periods of work interspersed with other activities.
  • Set a timer if it helps you remember to take breaks.
  • Invest in ergonomic equipment for work. If you work at a desk, practice good posture.
  • Take advantage of safety training and equipment offered at work.
  • Warm up properly before exercising or playing sports.
  • Vary your fitness routine, so you are not always doing the same motions.
  • Don’t overdo fitness and sports. Allow plenty of time for recovery.
  • Learn and practice good form when playing sports.

Seeing a Specialist for RSI

If you have pain and discomfort that has come on gradually and is related to work or sports, work with an orthopedic specialist. SI Ortho’s team is experienced in managing and treating overuse injuries from carpal tunnel to tennis elbow, and more. Contact us today to consult with an expert and find a solution. 

Posted in: Hand & Wrist