Overuse Syndrome

Overview

What is overuse syndrome?

Overuse syndrome is another term for a repetitive motion disorder. It mainly affects those who repeat certain motions over and over again during their daily activities. If you’re suffering from overuse syndrome, it will most likely affect your hands and/or arms before any other parts of the body.

Symptoms and Causes

How can I recognize early signs of overuse syndrome in hands and arms?

Performing repetitive tasks that involve your hands and arms is the main cause of this disorder. There are certain jobs and activities that can cause overuse syndrome, including:

  • Working on an assembly line.
  • Sewing.
  • Playing a musical instrument.
  • Working on the computer.

All of these jobs and activities can put a lot of repeated stress on your hands and arms. When you push these body parts to their limit, it often results in overuse syndrome.

What are the symptoms of overuse syndrome?

At the beginning, your arms and hands will just feel tired and fatigued, which you may think is normal. Then, you may begin to feel musculoskeletal pain, meaning pain in your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and nerves. If it continues to get worse, you could be dealing with microtrauma, which occurs when small parts of your soft tissue begin to tear. Eventually, your muscles and tissues will experience more and more trauma, resulting in pain and loss of use.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Swelling.
  • Numbness.
  • Gradual loss of the ability to move your hands and/or arms like you once could.

Can overuse syndrome cause arthritis?

There’s no known link between this condition and arthritis, though overuse syndrome can lead to some other ailments, including:

  • Tendinitis.
  • De Quervain’s tenosynovitis (irritation in the wrist and thumb tendons).
  • Stenosing tenosynovitis (swollen flexor tendons).
  • Capsulitis (inflamed ligaments).
  • A muscle or tendon strain.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is overuse syndrome diagnosed?

Your doctor will begin by asking you a series of questions about your symptoms, history of symptoms and medical history. After that, they’ll put you through a physical exam to test your arm/hand strength, before determining whether there’s any nerve damage or irritation.

Which tests are used to diagnose overuse syndrome?

There are three tests or scans that your doctor can use to diagnose this condition:

  • An electrical neurophysiological diagnostic test: This will help determine exactly which nerve is being affected.
  • X-rays: These can help your doctor rule out other conditions that are associated with this type of pain.
  • MRI: This imaging scan can give them a closer look at your ligaments and tendons.

Management and Treatment

How is overuse syndrome treated?

The easiest way to treat overuse syndrome is to stop the activities or motions that trigger your symptoms. Of course, this isn’t always possible since some of these activities are required for a specific job. If you aren’t able to completely cut out these activities, you should try to limit them as much as you can. The next step would be following conservative treatment recommended by your provider. These include:

  • Injection (performed by a physician).
  • Use of warm/cold modalities, such as contrast baths (alternating between a hot and cold bath).
  • Gentle exercise.
  • Using a splint (you can either create one yourself or buy one, depending on the area that’s affected).
  • Making changes to activities that cause symptoms.

The earlier you begin any of these treatments, after you begin feeling symptoms, the more effective they’ll be. You may also be referred to occupational therapy or physical therapy, where you’ll receive specific recommendations on how to relieve your discomfort, and on how to reduce any future recurrence of these symptoms.

What if these conservative measures don't work?

If you’re still feeling pain after trying all of those preventative measures, surgery may become an option. You will likely have a physical or occupational therapist who can help you recover after the surgery. They’ll teach you some different range of motion exercises that will help you regain normal functionality in either your hand or arms.

When you’re ready, you can start performing strengthening exercises to further improve how your hand and/or arm functions.

Prevention

How do you prevent overuse syndrome?

Your doctor will likely tell you to rest any areas where you feel pain more often, while also recommending more conditioning:

  • Conditioning: Athletes typically utilize this method when they’re training, but you don’t have to be a top-notch athlete to use it. Think of yourself as an athlete. Warm up your most-used muscles before the day begins with different stretching exercises. During the day, if you need to, take breaks to rest and stretch again after excessive use of your hands and arms.
  • Gradually relaxing your muscles: When you get home from work, don't stop using your hands and arms altogether. Think about marathon runners: They always cool down following a grueling race. You should do the same with your over-worked muscles. A runner will usually walk for a few minutes following a race. Similarly, if you repeat your stretching exercises, rather than resting your hands and arms, it can help prevent the muscles from tightening up once you’ve finished using them for the day.

If you want to prevent the symptoms of overuse syndrome from coming back, you need to be aware of the early warning signs. This means resting when necessary and taking the proper precautions when you start to feel any sort of discomfort.

Outlook / Prognosis

Most people who suffer from overuse syndrome in their hands and arms are able to recover and change their lifestyle, to avoid or limit the movements that cause symptoms. Making a small, but significant, lifestyle change, and incorporating helpful stretching exercises, will help relieve pain in your hands and arms and prevent another nagging injury.

But if you don’t seek treatment for this condition, it can lead to permanent injuries, sometimes so severe that you completely lose functionality in the affected area.

Living With

A note from Cleveland Clinic

You might not think overuse syndrome is a serious condition, but if you let it go unnoticed and untreated for too long, it can cause lasting damage. If you notice yourself repeating certain movements too often in your everyday life, to the point that it’s putting unwanted strain on your body, take the necessary preventative measures before it becomes a bigger problem.

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