Repetitive strain injury (RSI): Diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment

Repetitive strain injury has been around since people first began repeating motions and carrying out manual labor.

The first description of repetitive strain injury (RSI) came from an Italian physician, Bernardino Ramazzini, in 1700. He described more than 20 categories of RSI that he observed in the industrial workers of Italy.

Today, the main causes of RSI are manual labor, office work, and the use of modern technological devices. Examples include Blackberry thumb, iPod finger, PlayStation thumb, Rubik’s wrist or cuber’s thumb, stylus finger, raver’s wrist, and Emacs pinky.

The range of RSIs is wide, but this article will focus mainly on those caused by working environments, sports, and the use of modern devices.

Fast facts on RSI

Here are some key points about RSI. More detail is in the main article.

There are many different kinds of RSI, and different ways of treating and preventing them.

Modern technological devices have caused an upswing in RSIs.

Repetitive motions in one part of the body can affect the muscles in another part.

Psychological stress and monotony can worsen the symptoms.

Improved workplace practices can help prevent it.

What is an RSI?

Wrist pain can result from using a laptop for long periods of time.
Wrist pain can result from using a laptop for long periods of time.

RSI refers to a wide variety of problems. An RSI can affect almost any movable part of the human body.

RSIs are associated with repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression, and sustained or awkward positions.

Other names include repetitive motion injuries, repetitive motion disorder (RMD), cumulative trauma disorder (CTD), occupational overuse syndrome, overuse syndrome, and regional musculoskeletal disorder.


RSI has many possible causes, and a wide range of possible symptoms.

Here are some of the more general symptoms:

tenderness or pain in the affected muscle or joint

a throbbing or pulsating sensation in the affected area

tingling, especially the hand or arm

loss of sensation

loss of strength

Other symptoms depend on which part of the body is affected.

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A doctor will normally be able to diagnose an RSI through a physical examination and by asking questions about the sort of repetitious tasks the patient does regularly, what causes the discomfort, and when it tends to happen.

There are two broad types of RSI.

Type 1 RSI is a musculoskeletal disorder. Symptoms usually include swelling and inflammation of specific muscles or tendons.

Type 2 RSI has a range of causes. It is often related to nerve damage resulting from work activities.

A Type 2 RSI will have no additional symptoms, just a general feeling of pain or discomfort. It is sometimes known as non-specific pain syndrome.


The causes and symptoms of RSIs are varied, so treatment also varies.

Types of treatment that are commonly used include:

Medication: Anti-inflammatory painkillers (such as aspirin or ibuprofen), muscle relaxants, and antidepressants may help. Sleeping tablets may be suitable, if sleeping is affected.

Heat or cold: Applying heat packs or ice packs. Avoid excessive heat or applying ice directly to the skin, as these can burn.

Splints: Some people use an elastic support or splint.

Physical therapy: This Includes exercises, manual therapy, bracing or splinting, and advice on adapting activities to cope with tasks or reduce the risk of worsening the injury.

Steroid injections: These are only advised if there is inflammation associated with a specific medical condition, as they can have adverse effects.

Surgery: : As a last resort, surgery can correct problems with specific tendons and nerves.

Repeated actions such as lifting boxes or painting a ceiling can lead to pain in parts of the body that are used excessively.
Repeated actions such as lifting boxes or painting a ceiling can lead to pain in parts of the body that are used excessively.

The main way to reduce the risk is to stop or reduce the intensity of the activity.

If the activity cannot be stopped, tips for reducing the risk include:

Taking breaks: Taking regular breaks from a repetitive task can help. An alarm can act as a reminder to take short breaks.

Stand up: Standing up and stretching frequently can reduce the risk. Extend the back, arms, and fingers.

Eye break: Rest the eye muscles by looking up and staring for a moment at objects in the distance.

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