Repetitive strain injuries are a real pain

by Holly Boyer, Senior Editor, INALJ Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia 

Repetitive strain injuries are a real pain

holly boyerI bet you use your computer a lot. Aside from all your work related computer use, you come home and get right back on, don’t you? Are you making sure that you’re protecting yourself from injury? Or are you already in pain and not exactly sure why?

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a subject near and dear to my heart. Earlier this year I went through carpal tunnel release surgery on both wrists, something I hope none of you ever need. Because of my experiences with an RSI, I am more than a little vocal about things like ergonomics in the work place –and became the ergonomics contact for my office group last year. Here are a 2 kinds of computer work related RSIs and what you can do to prevent them.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This is the granddaddy of computer work RSI, although anyone that uses repetitive wrist/hand motions can suffer from this. It is caused by the squeezing or pressing of the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the palm. The use of vibrating tools, hypothyroidism, injury/trauma to the wrist, work stress and increased work load, and pregnancy can all contribute to and exacerbate carpal tunnel syndrome. In my personal experience, using a regular mouse was brutal. I was working full time and earning a masters which basically meant I was using a computer all day, every day.

Symptoms include:
• Burning, tingling, or itching numbness in the palm of the hand fingers, especially the thumb and index and middle fingers.
• Often first appears at night.
• Decreased grip strength, difficulty in forming a fist, grasping small objects, performing manual tasks
• Some people unable to tell the difference between hot and cold.
• In chronic cases, the muscles at the base of the thumb may waste away.

What can you do to prevent it?
Stretching exercises
• Frequent rest breaks (this 20 20 20 rule works great)
• Wear splints to keep wrists straight
• Use correct posture and wrist position
• Use ergonomic equipment/workstation (I switch between left and right vertical mice and use a split keyboard)
• Rotate work tasks so you’re not doing the same thing for long periods of time

Tennis elbow. Now, this sounds like a strange injury for an office worker, as most of us aren’t regularly playing tennis at work. This is overworked tendons in the elbow caused by repeated contraction of the forearm muscles used to straighten and raise hand and wrist. Repetitive arm, elbow, wrist, and hand movements, such as playing tennis, golf, vacuuming, or even using a mouse can cause tennis elbow. Pain radiates from outside of elbow into forearm and wrist. Pain and weakness makes it difficult to:
• Shake hands
• Turn a doorknob
• Hold a coffee cup

Usually home treatments like rest, pain relievers, ice, working on technique and body positioning will help.

In addition to the 2 above, there are several other RSIs that affect computer workers:
Cubital and radial tunnel syndromes
De Quervain syndrome (or gamer’s thumb)
Thoracic outlet syndrome

Ultimately, if you notice chronic issues that seem to be exacerbated by certain repetitive movements, go see your doctor. I waited until I could barely use my hands and by that point my only option was surgery. Don’t be like me! Most of these RSIs can be resolved with rest, changing your work habits, and, if necessary, physical therapy.

Stay healthy.