Avoiding and Treating Repetetive Motion Injury

Repetitive Motion Injury, Repetitive Strain Injury, Repetitive Stress Injury, RMI, RSI — whatever you call it, it’s a major cause of physical pain, discomfort, and lost productivity.

Repetitive motion injuries occur when muscles, nerves, ligaments, and tendons perform the same motions over and over again, without sufficient time for recovery. Sporting and workplace activities and especially extended computer use are the main culprits, and unfortunately the damage is often done before we are even aware of any symptoms.

Repetitive stresses can result in conditions including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, bursitis, and tenosynovitis, with the most often affected areas being the neck, shoulder, forearm, and hand. If not managed properly, these injuries can become long-term or even permanent problems involving pain, weakness, numbness, and motor control impairment.

Fortunately there are options and strategies for treatment, management, and prevention.

It’s best to avoid repetitive motion injuries entirely

Be aware of your daily activities and how they’re affecting your body. If you work in a factory or warehouse or on an assembly line, know that endlessly repeating the same motions in the same way time after time, hour after hour, day after day, will likely have an effect on your health. If possible, vary your routine or rotate your assignments. Pay special attention to posture and proper technique when lifting or performing other tasks. Use appropriate tools and safety equipment.

If you spend your day at a desk working with a computer, the fine hand movements associated with typing and clicking a mouse can be terrible strains on the muscles and tendons of the forearms, wrists, and fingers. Good ergonomics and posture are key:

  • Situate your keyboard so that you can hold your arms with your elbows bent at 90-degree angles, with your hands floating above—not resting on—the keyboard.
  • Keep your mouse nearby so you don’t have to stretch out to reach it. Better yet, try a trackball or trackpad instead of a mouse.
  • The top of your monitor should be at just about eye level.
  • If you work on a laptop for extended periods of time, the ergonomic principles above are difficult to maintain. Consider adding a separate keyboard and mouse that you can keep in the proper position, while elevating the laptop on a stand for a higher monitor.

Exercise and stretch

It’s important to take frequent breaks from the repetitive motions in order to relax and stretch the areas of concern. But it’s also very helpful to perform additional exercises for overall strength, balance, and flexibility. Consider activities like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi, which are great for improving posture and overall body awareness. If you have a hard time making it through the workday without slouching at your desk—thus increasing your risk of RMI—then a little extra exercise like this might be just what you need.

Treatment options

If you already have—or if you feel like you’re developing—a repetitive motion injury, then it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor. There are surgical options and there are medicines for pain relief, but those should not be your first choices. What you want from your doctor is a referral to a physical therapist or occupational therapist with a good understanding of RMI.

Rather than focusing simply on pain management, the specialist will be able to study your unique circumstances and work with you to treat the cause of the problem. With appropriate exercises, postural corrections, and activity modifications, time may allow your body to recover and heal itself without needing to resort to higher risk measures.