Navigation

Repetitive strain injury (RSI)

Expert reviewer, Laura McKay, MSK Physiotherapist at Bupa
Next review due February 2025

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is when you get aches and pains in your body from doing repetitive movements. RSI mainly affects your arms, shoulders, wrists and hands. It’s also called overuse syndrome or upper limb disorder.

A woman working at her desk looking focused

What is repetitive strain injury (RSI)?

The term ‘RSI’ is used to describe a range of different problems that affect your muscles, tendons, joints and nerves in your upper body. Repeated strain on these tissues can start to damage them. Over time, this can lead to symptoms such as pain and loss of strength.

If you think you have RSI, there are lots of things you can do yourself to ease your symptoms. But sometimes you need to seek help from a health professional.

Causes of repetitive strain injury (RSI)

There are lots of different causes of RSI. These could include if you often:

  • do an activity that involves repeated movements with your arm or hand, like using a computer, painting or playing tennis or golf
  • do an activity that involves lifting or carrying heavy objects
  • carry out an activity for a long time without taking enough breaks
  • have poor posture from working at a poorly designed workstation
  • do activities that involve working in an awkward or uncomfortable position
  • use vibrating equipment, like power tools

There are other things that can increase your risk of developing an RSI too. For example, having a high workload and tight deadlines, which can make you feel stressed. If you’ve had a previous injury, or you haven’t trained properly for a particular sport, this can also increase your risk.

Sometimes, RSI can be caused by a particular condition – for example, carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis.

Symptoms of repetitive strain injury (RSI)

RSI can cause a wide range of symptoms including pain and tenderness in your muscles and joints, especially when you’re doing certain activities. It tends to mostly affect your upper limbs, including your arms, shoulders, wrists and hands.

Other common RSI symptoms include:

  • aches
  • stiffness
  • tingling
  • numbness
  • weakness
  • cramp
  • reduced movement in your joints

You may not have any physical signs such as swelling, even though it’s painful. Eventually, your symptoms may prevent you doing your work or normal activities at all. But making some changes early on can help to prevent your RSI from getting worse.

Self-help for repetitive strain injury (RSI)

You don’t always need to seek help from a health professional for RSI. There are lots of things you can do yourself that may help to manage your symptoms.

  • Try having a complete break from the activities that trigger your symptoms. You can gradually start doing them again once your symptoms have settled down.
  • Cold and heat therapies may help to ease your symptoms. Applying an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel to the affected area can reduce pain and swelling. You can apply it for up to 20 minutes at a time. Heat can help to ease muscle pain and stiffness. You could try gently holding a heat pack or hot water bottle against the area or having a warm bath.
  • Use over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen and paracetamol to ease your symptoms. But don’t take them regularly without a GP’s advice.

 

Changes at work

If your symptoms are related to the type of work you do, speak to your manager for support. Employers have a legal duty to prevent work-related RSI or stop an existing RSI from getting any worse. Your employer may refer you to an occupational therapist or occupational health advisor for help and advice. By looking at your working environment and how you work, they can help identify which activity is causing your RSI and ways to control it.

You may need to avoid doing the activity that causes your symptoms for a while – or at least reduce the time spent doing it. Your employer may be able to find you different tasks to do while you recover. In the longer term, your employer may suggest certain changes to stop your RSI or to try and prevent it in the first place. These may include the following.

  • If you work at a desk, making changes to your workstation or work environment to improve your posture. This might include adjusting your desk height or providing a suitable chair. It might also mean trying a different keyboard or mouse that gives you better support.
  • Making sure you’re using suitable equipment or work tools in order to do your job safely.
  • Making sure you’re taking enough breaks or dividing your time between different tasks. This will mean you’re not doing one task for too long and have time to move and stretch.

Diagnosis of repetitive strain injury (RSI)

If your symptoms don’t go away with the measures outlined in our self-help section above, you may need to seek help from a health professional. A GP or physiotherapist will usually be able to tell that your symptoms are due to RSI from talking to you about your symptoms. Physiotherapists are often best placed to help with RSI problems. In some areas, you may be able to book an appointment with an NHS physiotherapist without seeing a doctor first. But in others, a GP will need to refer you. Or you can choose to pay for private physiotherapy.

If you see a physiotherapist or GP with symptoms of RSI, they’ll ask about your symptoms and examine you. They’ll also want to know about your medical history and what type of work you do. Tell them if you’ve noticed that certain activities could be causing your symptoms or making them worse. Sometimes, they may suggest you have some tests to rule out other conditions. These may include nerve conduction studies and scans of the affected area.

Bone icon Looking for physiotherapy?

You can access a range of treatments on a pay as you go basis, including physiotherapy. Find out more about physiotherapy >

Bone iconLooking for physiotherapy?

Treatment of repetitive strain injury (RSI)

Physiotherapy

A physiotherapist can help to restore movement and function in the part of your body that’s been affected. It’s usually best to keep moving as much as you can. A physiotherapist can help you to do this in a way that causes the least amount of pain. They’ll also help you to stretch and strengthen any affected muscles, and to improve your posture.

Physiotherapists may also be able to offer certain therapies to manage your pain, including TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machines and ultrasound therapy.

Steroid injections

Sometimes, if your pain is severe and other measures haven’t helped, your GP may offer you a steroid injection for RSI. Steroids can reduce inflammation in your joint and help to ease your pain. This can help you to keep moving.

Surgery for RSI

Surgery isn’t usually needed for RSI. But it can be an option for certain underlying conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. if your GP suspects your symptoms are caused by something like this, they may refer you to a surgeon who specialises in this area for further investigation.

Frequently asked questions

  • RSI causes pain and tenderness in your muscles and joints. It mainly affects your upper limbs – including your shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and fingers. You might get other symptoms including stiffness, tingling and numbness. Find out more about how RSI might affect you in our section on symptoms above.

  • A doctor or physiotherapist can usually tell if you have RSI based on your symptoms and information about your work and activities. They may only need to do tests to rule out other conditions. You can often manage symptoms of RSI yourself and don’t always need to see a doctor or physiotherapist. For more information, see our section on diagnosis of RSI above.

  • The most important thing you can do is to stop or reduce the activity that’s causing your symptoms. You may need to make some changes at work to prevent it flaring up again. You can take over-the-counter painkillers and use heat and cold packs to manage your pain. If you need to, you can see a physiotherapist or GP for further treatment. To find out more, see our sections on self-help and treatment for RSI above.



Did our information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.


About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

  • Discover other helpful health information websites.

    • Musculoskeletal problems. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online June 2020
    • Repetitive strain injury. Encyclopaedia Britannica. www.britannica.com, accessed 13 December 2021
    • Upper limb disorders. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 13 December 2021
    • Epicondylitis. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 13 November 2021
    • Working safely with display screen equipment. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 13 December 2021
    • What are psychosocial risk factors? Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 13 December 2021
    • Van Eerd D, Munhall C, Irvin E, et al. Effectiveness of workplace interventions in the prevention of upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders and symptoms: an update of the evidence. Occup Environ Med 2016; 73:62–70
    • Superficial heat and cold. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 3 September 2019
    • Malanga GA, Yan N, Stark J. Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury. Postgrad Med 2015; 127(1):57–65. doi:10.1080/00325481.2015.992719
    • The law on musculoskeletal disorders at work. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 13 December 2021
    • Managing upper limb disorders in the workplace. A brief guide. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, published January 2020
    • Hoe VCW, Urquhart DM, Kelsall HL, et al. Ergonomic interventions for preventing work‐related musculoskeletal disorders of the upper limb and neck among office workers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 10. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD008570.pub3
    • What MSK first contact physiotherapists can offer you. Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. csp.org.uk, last reviewed 30 July 2020
    • Find a physio. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. csp.org.uk, last reviewed 18 March 2021
    • Carpal tunnel syndrome. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 14 November 2021
    • What is physiotherapy? Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. csp.org.uk, last reviewed 14 March 2018
    • Pain in and around a single joint. MSD manuals. msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision February 2021
    • Overuse injury. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 15 July 2020
    • Minor surgery. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online June 2020
    • Carpal tunnel syndrome. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised July 2021
    • Personal communication, Laura McKay, MSK Physiotherapist at Bupa UK, February 2022
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, February 2022
    Expert reviewer, Laura McKay, MSK Physiotherapist at Bupa
    Next review due February 2025

ajax-loader