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RSI

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) creeps in gradually but can quickly become debilitating. The sensation of RSI can range from tingling and tenderness to intolerable pain. There is still relatively little known about how RSI is caused and how it should be treated, which is why it can often be difficult to diagnose and manage. What we do know is that employers should be doing their best to prevent musculoskeletal issues like RSI from occurring in the workplace by encouraging healthy behaviours like good posture and taking regular breaks.

This guide will take you through RSI in more detail and show you how to prevent and manage the symptoms of RSI in the workplace. You should visit your GP if you are experiencing any recurring pain and talk to your employer about how RSI can be managed at work to limit the impact on your performance.

What is RSI?

Repetitive strain injury (RSI), also known as work-related upper limb disorder (ULD), describes pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons in the upper body. RSI is usually caused by overuse when a particular movement is carried out over and over again - like inputting on a computer, working with tools, or using vibrating machinery.

Over time these repeated movements can cause small tears in muscles, causing inflammation. The inflamed muscles can then impinge on nerves, causing pain and damage whenever the movement is repeated. Pain from RSI can make us move and sit in different ways, which in turn can cause additional stiffness in joints and even lead to premature degenerative changes.

RSI symptoms

It is important to recognise symptoms of RSI early on so that you can take action to prevent it from becoming a bigger problem that affects your performance at work. Being in pain can also have a huge bearing on our emotional and psychological wellbeing. It affects sleep, mood and the way we interact with the people around us.

RSI symptoms range from mild discomfort to debilitating pain. It can include sensations such as:

  • Pain, aching or tenderness
  • Weakness
  • Stiffness
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Cramp
  • Throbbing

These RSI symptoms are usually felt in the upper part of the body, specifically in the:

  • Forearms
  • Elbows
  • Wrists
  • Hands
  • Neck
  • Shoulders

You might notice one or more of these symptoms when you are carrying out a specific task, such a typing on a computer. Sometimes this pain will go away when you stop carrying out that activity, sometimes it will linger afterwards. Unfortunately, RSI can get worse with time, so it’s important not to ignore it - even if at the moment it’s just an occasional niggle. It could be a clear sign that something is wrong with the way you are moving, and that changes need to be made.

RSI causes

RSI is usually a result of overworked soft tissue, which can be triggered by many different factors. Common RSI causes include:

  • Working with equipment that is the wrong size or fit for your body
  • Repetitive use of arms for long periods of time
  • Working too fast
  • Not taking enough breaks
  • Holding your muscles in the same position for too long
  • Lack of safety training
  • Lack of work task variety
  • Working with vibrating tools
  • Twisting or squeezing
  • Hammering and pounding (including typing)
  • Lifting or reaching
  • Pushing or pulling
  • Prolonged work in cold conditions

The human body is remarkably robust and well-adapted to cope with a range of different movements, forces and stresses, but there is always a limit and we should take care to listen to the signs and signals our bodies give off when this limit is being breached. Often the point of stress is not the point of pain. The musculoskeletal system is a network - everything is connected, so damage can be inflicted to one area and the symptom can be felt in another.

Psychosocial causes of RSI

Some experts argue that the development of RSI is not merely down to physical factors. Our bodies naturally respond to social and emotional triggers. For instance, when we’re feeling run down or stressed, our bodies might tense up unconsciously. We might find ourselves hunching over or tightening our shoulders. This tightening up of the body might make it more vulnerable to musculoskeletal pain. This is why it’s important to take a holistic approach when considering potential RSI causes. When it comes to health, job satisfaction, happiness and general psychological wellbeing all matter.

RSI prevention and treatment

We can never guarantee the prevention or treatment of RSI, but we can take steps to give ourselves the best chance of avoiding it. Take extra care when carrying out movements that involve:

  • Force
  • Awkward or rigid postures
  • Repetition and frequency

All of these put you at risk of developing an RSI. When carrying out activities that involve these factors, make sure you:

Take regular breaks

Whatever the activity is, make sure you pause ever 20-30 minutes either to go for a walk (if you’re usually sedentary), sit down (if you’re usually active), or take a stretch to reset your body and improve your circulation to any areas that may have been impeded.

Use suitable ergonomic equipment

Make sure the equipment you use - whether tools, machinery, or computer equipment, fits your body well. It should be the right size for you and it should feel comfortable to use. If you do work at a computer, ask for a DSE assessment. The assessor will identify any set-up issues, adjust existing equipment to the correct settings, or suggest better equipment altogether.

Adopt a range of healthy postures

The worst posture is the one you stay in for too long. Make sure there’s variety in your tasks so that you’re not carrying out one activity for prolonged periods. If you simply don’t have a choice because of the nature of your job, be firm in taking breaks. It may seem unproductive to onlookers, and even to yourself, to keep taking breaks, but if you end up with RSI as a result of prolonged work then you could end up wasting a huge amount of time and money by not being physically able to work.

RSI in the workplace - FAQ

Here we try to ask some of your most frequently asked questions about RSI in the workplace.

Is RSI caused by mouse and keyboard use?

It can be. RSI can be caused by a variety of tasks that involve repetitive movements. If you have frequently been using a computer for long periods of time then it is possible that this is how your RSI developed. Inputting often involves hundreds of micromovements every day that, over time, can put stress on your soft tissues and lead to injury.

You should go to your GP for a diagnosis and talk to your employer about getting a DSE assessment. The DSE assessor will recommend adjustments and help you find ways to manage your discomfort or pain while using your workstation. This way if the RSI is computer-related, you can find a solution.

Should I tell my employer if I have an RSI?

Yes. It is your responsibility to report your RSI to your employer so that this can be reported in the accident management system and a solution or management strategy can be established.

What is the best computer mouse for RSI?

Everybody is different and as RSI is such a generalised term for a number of different conditions, we can’t say there is one ‘best’ mouse for RSI. However, we do recommend trying a range of solutions. Some people who suffer with RSI prefer to use a roll bar style mouse, while others get relief from using a vertical mouse, which positions the hand and wrist in a neutral ‘handshake’ position to minimise unnatural twisting.

Is there anything I can do for RSI relief?

Yes. You should talk to your GP for medical advice and follow their instructions. You can also talk to your employer to gain access to ergonomic equipment. In addition, take regular breaks from repetitive work, stretch and exercise regularly to keep your body strong and healthy.