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What is repetitive strain injury at work?

Repetitive Strain Injury or RSI is a term that came into prominence during the 1980s. RSI was categorised as an injury caused by prolonged and cumulative movements including repetitive, forceful and/ or awkward movements or postures. Symptoms of RSI include numbness, pain and sensitivity to touch. Usually, a physical examination would not reveal the source of such symptoms. Stereotypically the diagnosis was associated with typists who had to use typewriters with hard keyboards (unlike the soft-touch keyboards of today). Typically these typists injured their fingers, wrists, hands or even elbows.

Of importance, the term RSI has been replaced by the term Occupational Overuse Syndrome or OOS. The significant difference between the two diagnoses is that unlike RSI, OOS takes into account the role of psychosocial factors in the cause of the injury and how the injury should be treated.

Causes of OOS

  • The overuse or repetitive movement of a particular joint, muscle or tendon.
  • Awkward or unnatural posture.

Common Symptoms of OOS

Any part of the body can be affected by OOS. Common symptoms of OOS include weakness, numbness, swelling, inflammation, restricted movement or pain felt in the affected joint, muscle or tendon. These symptoms can be experienced while using the respective joint, muscle or tendon or even when you are at rest.

High-Risk Occupations

A job that requires performing repetitive and fast movements and / or requires that you assume an awkward or fixed posture places you at risk of OOS.
The lists of examples below are not exhaustive of the types of occupations that will place you at risk of OOS.

Manual work: carpenter, bricklayer, hairdresser, fruit picker, seamstress, web designer or shearer.

Office work: typist or office clerk.

Process work: assembly line worker or packer.

Risk Factors

Particular work practices or the design of a worker’s workplace can place the worker at great risk of sustaining OOS. Examples include:

  • Repetitive manual tasks requiring the use of the same joint, muscle or tendon.
  • Equipment that operates at a pace that does not allow for workers to use the equipment comfortably.
  • Tight deadlines or a work schedule that does not facilitate sufficient breaks.
  • Workstations or benchtops that are positioned either too low, high or too far away from the worker’s body.
  • Equipment, office furniture or tools that are not ergonomically designed. In other words, they do not compliment the natural shape and functionality of the human body.
  • A work environment that necessitates the worker to repetitively stretch, bend or twist their body.

Preventative Measures

Some examples of how the risk of OOS may be reduced include:

  • Taking small but frequent breaks.
  • Organising a work roster whereby you constantly change the manual task that you perform to avoid repetitive use of one particular muscle, tendon or joint.
  • Being realistic about setting particular deadlines.
  • For every 20 minutes of looking at a computer screen, the worker should look away at an object at a further distance for 20 seconds to avoid eye strain.
  • Adjust office furniture to reflect the needs of your body type.
    • Adjust the height of your chair to ensure that your elbows are at the same level as that of your keyboard.
    • Position your computer monitor 20-30 inches away from your eyes. Your monitor should be positioned in a manner to ensure that your eyes are level with the top of the computer screen.
    • Ensure your office chair has lumbar support.
    • If you are sitting at a desk for long periods of time, ensure that your knees are slightly higher than your hips. You can achieve this with the use of a footstool.
    • Ensure your mousepad is located close to your keyboard.
    • Use a regular computer as much possible as opposed to using predominately a smaller laptop which has an awkwardly positioned keyboard and smaller screen.
    • Use a document holder to ensure that that the document you are viewing is at the same eye level as that of your computer screen.

Treatment

If left untreated the pain and discomfort associated with OOS will only increase in its intensity. Seek advice from a medical professional. Depending upon their diagnosis they may advise you to rest that particular joint, muscle or tendon. They may also advise that the practices of your workplace or the design of your work environment be assessed and / or modified. Simple changes can make a significant difference to your symptomology.