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A repetitive strain injury (RSI) (or repetitive stress injury) is caused by gradual damage to a body part over time. Affected body parts may include muscles, tendons, ligaments and even nerves.
Repeating particular tasks or holding awkward or unusual positions can cause an RSI. So can forceful exertions, vibrations or mechanical compression if repeated over time.
RSIs are also known as overuse injuries, repetitive motion injuries and cumulative trauma disorder, just to name a few alternative terms. Many RSIs are also sports injuries that typically affect athletes (e.g. shin splints or lower leg stress fractures).
Whatever the name, RSIs take place over extended periods and can affect just about any movable part of your body. They have been around since humans have been performing manual labour. However, the main RSI causes in the modern world are not only manual labor but office work and technological devices e.g. computers.
Some of the most common RSIs include tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, plantar fasciitis and lower back pain.
RSI symptoms include pain, stiffness and tenderness in the injured area, among other problems. Treatment usually involves some or all of the steps of the P.R.I.C.E. (Protection, Rest, Icing, Compression and Elevation) protocol. In rare circumstances, corrective surgery is required.
The term RSI refers to a multitude of different injuries that all have one common factor – that of occurring over time. Hence, the specific causes of each RSI are different.
However, many RSIs are due to the cumulative effect of repetitive tasks that cause small stresses on a particular body part. None of these stresses is damaging in itself, but they all repeat themselves multiple times over days, weeks and months. The RSI is therefore the result of the cumulative impact of these stresses over time.
Similarly, RSIs due to uncomfortable positions, or prolonged standing, are due to the cumulative impact of this activity over time.
Some of the factors that can increase your risk of suffering a repetitive stress injury are:
Because the term refers to many different underlying injuries, RSI symptoms can vary greatly from one case to another. However, speaking generally, the symptoms of an overuse injury include:
As mentioned above, the specific symptoms will depend on which body part is affected and on the severity of the injury.
In many cases, the symptoms may appear intermittently (i.e. may come and go) in the early stages of an RSI. Usually, however, they become more consistent and severe over time if the overuse injury is left untreated.
Doctors divide repeated stress injuries into two types:
Diagnosis of an RSI usually involves a physical examination of the affected body part. Your doctor may also ask questions about repetitive tasks you perform using that part of your body. He or she may also inquire about when the pain is most severe or what aggravates it.
Imaging studies are usually not necessary to diagnose a repetitive stress injury. In the rare situations when they are requested, the doctor is probably trying to eliminate another possible cause of your symptoms.
As mentioned above, the symptoms of each RSI can vary. As a result, the treatment plan can also vary from one case to another.
Generally, repetitive stress injuries are treated conservatively using the following R.I.C.E. protocol:
If these steps fail, doctors can try injecting steroid medications near the injury area to combat inflammation.
As a last resort, surgery may be attempted to correct the problem.
To reduce your risk of suffering an RSI, consider the following;
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