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Symptoms of repetitive strain injury (RSI)

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

The symptoms of repetitive strain injury (RSI) usually develop gradually. Most individuals are unable to pin point an exact occasion when they developed symptoms of pain, swelling and stiffness of the affected muscles. This is characteristic of RSI and differentiates it from acute sudden injuries caused due to an accident.

Variation in symptoms of RSI

Symptoms of RSI vary from individual to individual and depend on the type of injury and the duration of strain.

For example, those suffering from excessive force or vibration injuries may complain of different set of symptoms compared to those with RSI due to an awkward or static posture or due to repetitive movements.

Symptoms may also range from mild to severe depending on the duration of RSI. (1-7)

Common symptoms of RSI

Common symptoms include:

  • Pain and/or tenderness in the affected muscles of joints. At more advanced stages the pain may wake the sufferer from sleep.
  • Stiffness of the joints or the affected muscles and tendons
  • Throbbing pain
  • Numbness and tingling due to damage or lack of blood supply to the nerves that may be pinched or twisted in severe cases of RSI. There may be burning or a feeling of coldness.
  • Weakness of the affected muscles. For example, when the hand is affected there may be a weak grip. This may manifest as clumsiness and dropping objects as well.
  • Cramps are commonly seen in RSI and usually may affect the upper limbs.
  • Patient usually speaks of an aggravating factor like a particular position or activity. He or she may also relate a particular position or duration of rest that relieves the symptoms at the initial phases of RSI. Patient may also speak of a hobby or leisure-related activity that brings on the pain when the same set of muscles or tendons are in use.
  • There may be associated clicking, 'popping' or rubbing of a tendon
  • In more advanced cases there is a warm skin over the affected are and sometimes redness over the inflamed muscles can be noted.

Types of RSI

There are two main types of RSI: localised and diffused conditions.

In localized conditions detection is easier as the symptoms occur to a particular part of the body.

Diffused conditions are a challenge to diagnose as the exact site of injury remains undetected.

Localized RSI conditions include:

  • bursitis (inflammation of the soft pad of tissue or sac of fluid between skin and bone or tendon and bone)
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (pressure on the nerves which run through the wrist)
  • Epicondylitis or tennis elbow
  • Tendonitis
  • tenosynovitis (inflammation of the tendons and/or tendon sheaths)
  • tension neck or shoulder
  • trigger finger etc.

Common muscles involved are hand, elbows, shoulders, forearms, back, neck, knees etc.

Early symptoms of RSI

The first stage of the symptoms may last for several weeks and usually begin as the sufferer noticing the symptoms when they are working on a particular repetitive action.

Symptoms lessen when the muscles or affected tendons are put at rest. This is called the mild stage or stage 1. It is called threatened over-use injury.

Later symptoms of RSI

If left uncared for this initial stage worsens to cause longer periods of pain called stage 2 or moderate RSI. There may be swelling, redness, warmth over the affected area along with muscle or joint stiffness.

This lasts for several months. There is recurrent pain that persists at night and may disturb sleep.

Severe symptoms of RSI

At later stages the RSI becomes constant and becomes irreversible. This is severe RSI or stage 3. There may be pain, weakness, and fatigue even during sleep.

The sufferer may be unable to carry out even light tasks at home or work. Since this is irreversible it is called established over-use injury.

Early detection and treatment as well as prevention of further injury thus may help prevent long term complications and debility.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 8, 2012

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