A guide to repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is an umbrella term given to related disorders affecting limbs due repeated gestures, awkward or inappropriate grips and poor posture. It can seriously affect both working and private lives.

What is repetitive strain injury?

Repetitive strain injury refers to a range of disorders that affect the soft tissues of hands, arms, shoulders and the neck. The most commonly diagnosed form of RSI is tenosinovitus, which is inflammation of the sheath that surrounds a tendon. Other common disorders in the RSI spectrum include carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.

What are the symptoms of RSI?

Symptoms of RSI can vary widely, and include painful tenderness or crackling sensations in muscles and joints, reduced grip strength and reduced sensation in the fingers. These symptoms start off slowly and get progressively worse the longer you leave them. In the later stages of RSI the pain can be agonising and can lead to permanent disability.

What causes repetitive strain injury?

RSI occurs often in the workplace but can also be caused by activities that occur regularly, such as housework and sport. Although the cause of an individual’s RSI will differ, it is often caused by one or more of the following factors:

  • Vibrating equipment
  • Extended periods of work without breaks
  • Blunt force or pressure to the body
  • Cold temperatures
  • Regular carrying of heavy loads
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Awkward grips and postures
  • Repetitive action putting strain on joints and muscles
  • Poorly designed workstations and desks

Who is most at risk from RSI?

People whose professions or lifestyles cause them to take part in actvities that replicate the conditions listed above may suffer from RSI at some point in their lives. For example, office workers that do not make ergonomic use of keywords and workstations may suffer from RSI, as may construction workers constantly in contact with pneumatic drills. Those with related pre-existing conditions, such as arthritis, may be more at risk from RSI.

Treating RSI

If you or one of your employees suspects they may have RSI then contacting a doctor is essential. The condition is progressive; the longer you leave it the worse it will get, and the harder it’ll be to treat. A range of techniques are used to alleviate the condition, including painkillers, heat and cold packs, anti-inflammatory drugs, occupational therapy, osteopathy and physiotherapy. Identifying the cause of the condition, and taking steps to prevent its reoccurrence, must be done as soon as possible. In office environments, this may involve improving working posture or taking more regular breaks throughout the day.

Preventing RSI in the workplace

Employers should take a range of steps to combat RSI in the workplace; they have are legally obliged to protect workers’ health and safety.

  • Risk assessments should be carried out regularly, identifying areas and activities that may potentially lead to RSI
  • Training should be provided at regular intervals to help staff maintain correct posture, take regular breaks and use effective lifting technique at all times
  • Reminders should be made about the importance of positive working posture and correct use of tools

With regard to vibrating tools, the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 requires employers to maintain a specific risk assessment for employees working regularly with this type of equipment.