Repetitive Strain Injury
What is a repetitive strain injury?
Repetitive strain injuries are very common and usually affect your:
- Fingers and thumbs.
As their name suggests, repetitive strain injuries are caused by doing the same motion or activity repeatedly until it starts to hurt your body. Any motion or movement — from typing on a computer at work to practicing an instrument — can cause a repetitive strain injury if you do it too often.
Most repetitive stress injuries can be treated at home.
Who gets repetitive strain injuries?
Anyone can get a repetitive strain injury. Some of the most common people affected include:
- Workers with physically demanding jobs.
- People who sit at a desk or use a computer often.
How common are repetitive strain injuries?
Repetitive strain injuries are very common. They lead to many conditions, including:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Tennis elbow.
- Trigger finger and trigger thumb.
- Osgood-Schlatter disease.
- Back strains and sprains.
- Shin splints.
How does a repetitive strain injury affect my body?
The most obvious way a repetitive strain injury will affect you is the pain, discomfort and other symptoms you feel.
Because these injuries build up over time, that slow repeated damaged can also lead to other conditions, including:
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of a repetitive strain injury?
Symptoms of a repetitive strain injury include:
- Sensitivity to cold or heat.
What causes repetitive strain injuries?
Any motion or activity that you frequently repeat can cause a repeated strain injury. They happen after your body experiences the same kind of stress and strain over time. Common causes include:
- Working out too hard without warming up and cooling down.
- Sports or other activities that require you to use the same motion repeatedly.
- Poor posture when sitting or standing.
- Working with a tool that vibrates.
- Working in the cold.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are repetitive strain injuries diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will diagnose a repetitive strain injury with a physical exam. They’ll ask you when you noticed your symptoms and if any activity in your daily routine makes them worse.
What tests are done to diagnose repetitive strain injuries?
Depending on what’s causing your symptoms — and where in your body you’re experiencing pain — your provider might need a few imaging tests to diagnose a condition caused by repetitive strain, including:
Management and Treatment
How are repetitive strain injuries treated?
How repetitive strain injuries are treated depends on what’s causing them, and how severe your symptoms are. The best treatment is to modify or reduce the activity that caused your injury to prevent further damage. The damage to your body usually isn’t permanent and will heal over time.
You should be able to treat your symptoms at home by following R.I.C.E.:
- Rest: Avoid the activity that caused your injury. Don’t overuse the injured part of your body while it heals.
- Ice: Apply a cold compress to your injury 15 minutes at a time, a few times a day.
- Compression: Wrap your injury in an elastic bandage to help reduce swelling.
- Elevation: Keep the injury above the level of your heart as often as you can.
Over-the-counter NSAIDs like aspirin or ibuprofen can reduce pain and inflammation. Talk to your provider before taking NSAIDs for longer than 10 days.
Your provider might also refer you to a physical therapist to help with your posture, strength and flexibility. You might also work with an occupational therapist who can help tailor your recovery to get you ready to return to work (if that’s what caused your injury).
If your injury causes enough damage inside your body, you might need surgery to repair it, but this is rare.
How soon after treatment will I feel better?
You should feel better gradually as you treat your symptoms and take a break from the activity that caused your injury. How long it takes will depend on which type of injury you experienced and what kind of activity caused it. Talk to your provider for a specific timeline.
How can I prevent repetitive strain injuries?
The best way to avoid a repetitive strain injury is to avoid overusing your body.
During sports or other physical activities:
- Wear the right protective equipment.
- Don’t “play through it” if you feel pain during or after physical activity.
- Give your body time to rest and recover after intense activity.
- Stretch and warm up before playing sports or working out.
- Cool down and stretch after physical activity.
Improving your posture will help avoid extra stress on your body.
Federal laws and guidelines require employers to accommodate their employees’ needs to prevent repetitive strain injuries.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have a repetitive stress injury?
You should expect to make a full recovery from a repetitive stress injury. They’re usually temporary and shouldn’t have long-term impacts on your health or ability to do activities you love.
Will have to miss work or school with a repetitive strain injury?
If your job or activity at school caused your repetitive strain injury, you might need to miss some work or classes. Check with your provider before resuming any physical activity, especially if that’s what caused your original injury.
Talk to your provider about any accommodations you might qualify for while you heal if your injury was caused at work.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
Visit your provider if your symptoms are making it hard for you to do your day-to-day activities (including your job). They’ll help you understand what’s injured, what’s causing it and how you can modify your routine to help your body heal.
Stopping the damage from repetitive strain as soon as possible will help speed up your recovery.
When should I go to ER?
Go to the emergency room if you notice any of the following:
- Extreme pain.
- Swelling that’s getting worse.
- You can’t move a part of your body that you usually can.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
- What specific injury do I have?
- What kind of treatment do I need?
- Will I need to miss work?
- Do I need any accommodations to do my job safely?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Repetitive strain injuries take time to damage to your body, but they can cause serious pain. Make sure you’re listening to your body. If something hurts that normally doesn’t, don’t ignore it. Pain and other minor symptoms are often the first signs of tiny irritation that can lead to more serious repetitive strain injuries later on.
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