RSI: the ultimate guide
Work long hours at a desk? You might be at risk of RSI (repetitive strain injury), or you might already be aware of the pain and discomfort it can cause. This RSI Awareness Day, get clued up with our comprehensive guide:
What is RSI?
Throbbing pain, stiffness, feelings of numbness and general weakness are all classic symptoms of RSI (repetitive strain injury). It’s the ‘repetitive’ part that’s key in this terminology. ‘RSI is a catchall term,’ explains physiotherapist Sammy Margo. ‘It means the overuse of muscles, nerves and ligaments associated with small repetitive movements over several hours, without a break.
It’s also known as work-related upper limb disorder (WRULD). Although, it can occur in many professions, it’s become more common in the office workplace, with the increased use of laptops, tablets and smart phones. As a result, ‘the areas most commonly affected are wrist/fingers, elbow/forearm and neck and shoulders.’
Who gets it?
It tends to occur slightly more often in women than men, probably down to our hormones and looser joints. It’s also likelier in certain jobs, such as data input, which involve a lot of mouse-clicking.
Actual numbers are hard to come by, as the condition is under-reported. However, according to the Health and Safety Executive, 3.9 million working days in the UK were lost to WRULDs (including RSI) in 2016-17.
What causes it?
Poor posture, inadequate set-up of computer, keyboard/mouse and chair, and intense high-level activity without a break – all leave you at risk.
‘RSI isn’t always what people perceive it to be,’ says Margo. ‘It can be down to equipment that isn’t suitable for the job. For example, using stiff secateurs for a two-hour pruning stint will cause strain in the wrist and hand.’
Early warning symptoms include tingling or pain when doing a certain task. Heed these to prevent RSI becoming chronic.
What are the treatments?
The cause has to be found first, then the problem activity modified or ceased for a while. Causes aren’t hard to spot in an office. ‘It could be mouse related,’ says Margo, ‘or could also be down to using the wrong keyboard, sitting in the wrong chair, and not taking enough breaks.’
Anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, can ease the pain, as can applying a cold pack or cooling gel.
A session with a physiotherapist can help considerably. Treatments might include massage to release tightened muscles and tendons, acupuncture to relieve pain, and taping or wearing a hand or wrist splint. A physio can also advise on posture, chairs and workstation.
If you can’t take ibuprofen* when pain is acute, try turmeric or boswellia capsules**, says medical herbalist Gabriella Clarke, and always take them with food. White willow bark (where aspirin comes from) is good, too. Try magnesium oil spray for muscle tightness, or simply soak your hands in Epsom salts solution.
Did you know?
Your employer has a legal duty to minimise RSI and prevent its reoccurrence. This usually involves a risk assessment to ensure your workstation (desk, equipment and chair) is fit for you. Ask your line manager to arrange this.
Six ways to prevent RSI
1 Always use a proper desktop to work from – not a laptop or tablet resting on your lap in bed.
2 Use a laptop? Add an external small keyboard and laptop stand. Or, even better – use a standing desk.
3 Save on keystrokes with voice recognition software.
4 Avoid using one thumb or finger when texting or swiping on smartphones.
5 Ensure your forearms are supported all the time when using a keyboard.
6 Invest in an ergonomic, vertical mouse.
*Always follow instructions when taking painkillers.
**If you are pregnant, breast-feeding or under medical supervision, consult your doctor before taking supplements.
Compiled by Jean Elgie