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Repetitive strain injury (RSI)

This section contains answers to common questions about this topic. Questions have been suggested by health professionals, website feedback and requests via email.

Is there a difference between repetitive strain injury (RSI) and an upper limb disorder?

Answer

The two terms broadly refer to problems affecting the upper back, neck, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, hands and fingers. Repetitive strain injury (RSI) and upper limb disorders cover about 20 conditions.

Explanation

The terminology can be confusing. Different organisations and publications often use different terms for the same conditions, for example, the Health and Safety Executive uses RSI to refer to pain in the arm caused by working at a computer. But RSI and upper limb disorders can be used to describe the same group of medical conditions. You may also see the same conditions referred to as work-related upper limb disorders, overuse injuries or musculoskeletal disorders.

These conditions are grouped together because they affect your upper limbs. Examples of these conditions include tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and frozen shoulder.

I think I have RSI. What help can I expect from my employer?

Answer

Report any possible RSI symptoms that you think are caused by the way you work to your employer as soon as possible because carrying on in the same way may make things worse. By law your employer must offer you help.

Explanation

Your employer has a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to try to prevent work-related RSI, and to stop existing RSI from worsening. You need to talk to your manager, human resources department or the occupational health department. It may make it easier for your employer to help you if your GP can give you a specific diagnosis, but often this won't be possible.

Ask your employer to carry out a proper risk assessment with you. This means he or she needs to:

  • observe you doing your job, whether it's sitting at a computer, on a factory production line or at a supermarket checkout
  • look at your posture, how you use any equipment and the amount of work you do
  • ask about your problems in detail

You may need to take time off work, but once you begin to feel better it can help to get back into work, gradually building up your hours. Always seek medical advice about what is best for you. Following your risk assessment, your employer should give you specific advice. This may involve changing your duties or the way you work.

Are there early symptoms of RSI that I should look out for?

Answer

Yes, but many people don't realise that they have RSI until their symptoms have worsened. Early symptoms can include mild tingling, aching or twinges in your fingers, hands or arms, usually towards the end of a long day at work.

Explanation

It can be difficult to know what is happening to you when you first have symptoms of RSI but it's really important to take action to get treatment. Ignoring any pain you have and carrying on as usual can make things worse. As soon as you notice any possible RSI symptoms talk to your employer and your GP. The symptoms of RSI can progress and may eventually lead to pain that stops you from doing everyday activities. Your exact symptoms will vary depending on the specific RSI condition you have.

My son spends hours on his games console and texting. Is he at risk of developing RSI?

Answer

Potentially, but there are things you can advise him to do to reduce his risk of getting RSI.

Explanation

Any movement of your hand or arm that is repeated over a long period of time can put you at risk of developing RSI. Using games consoles and texting on mobile phones all involve repetitive movements, so it's important to follow advice about preventing RSI. Suggestions for ways to prevent RSI are shown below.

  • Take regular breaks every half an hour to give your muscles and tendons a rest – move your fingers and stretch out your arms, and try to keep your back straight.
  • Try not to hunch over the console with your head tilted back to look at the screen. Instead sit in an adjustable chair that supports your back.
  • Don’t keep your hands and arms rigid when your fingers and thumbs are moving quickly.
  • Be aware of how you hold your mobile phone, for example, holding it in one hand and in a claw position with your thumb moving over the keys quickly can strain your arm tendons.
  • Give your hand and thumb a quick massage when texting, and rotate your wrists one way and then the other.

If your child already has symptoms of RSI, such as tingling and soreness, don't ignore this. Ensure that he takes regular breaks from the activity that is causing pain. Encourage your child to follow the advice above. If he is still having the same symptoms after a couple of weeks, take him to see his GP. Keep notes on times when your child has the pain or other symptoms, and on how long he spends on the games console, computer or mobile phone.

 

Produced by Louise Abbott, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2011.

For our main content on this topic, see Information.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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  • Publication date: August 2011

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