Preventing Repetitive Strain Injury RSI

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When you get hurt, and can’t identify the cause, the most common diagnosis is repetitive strain or RSI.

Maureen DwightSeptember 28, 2016

Although this diagnosis implies that you have strained your tissues by performing an activity too many times, in fact there can be several contributing factors to these types of injuries.  Understanding these factors is the first step in preventing repetitive strain injuries RSI and in curing them.

What causes RSI?

The mechanism of RSI is often compared to a car or a hinge which has been used too many times and is finally worn out however the human body is not a car or a hinge.  Unlike mechanical machinery we are capable of healing.  Prevention is through making better decisions and/or understanding what to change to reduce stress. The most common causes of repetitive strain are failure to allow adequate rest and working too hard.

Failure to allow adequate rest – My associate John Gray R. Kin., discussed the importance of rest in relation to exercise in a previous post.  We understand that people who work out too much get injured.  It is key to build in adequate time for recovery as repeating a task too soon causes the tissues to strain. Whether we get injured with typing or gripping activities at work, in sport or at home the same principles apply  Pain from these simple everyday activities indicate that we are pushing our tissues too hard in relation to the rest we are providing.  Giving yourself short breaks throughout the day goes a long way toward prevention.  Varying your activity is important i.e. if you are on the computer all day try to limit your keyboard time on weekends and evenings.

Working too Hard – Every day I see people make decisions that cause an activity to be harder.  Often countertops are too high for the “vertically challenged”.  To cut a sandwich they bring their shoulder up to their ear when a simpler solution would be to bend their elbow and lift their hand.  These client’s often come to me with pain in their shoulder and neck. My tall clients don’t fit into their chairs.  To adapt they tuck their feet under or stretch them out in front. Sitting on  a pillow or raising the height of the office chair would both be better solutions.  Sore knees and backs are common in these scenarios.

Tips to prevent injury

One thing I have learned over the years is that to be healthy we don’t need to do everything perfectly.  It helps to analyze whether something is more likely to cause an injury and change those things first.  Here are two of the filters I use to limit injury.

Don’t work as hard – When a task is heavy take a moment to ask whether you can make it easier i.e. heavy lifting, Simple changes can help you to prevent an injury such as:

  • Use a cart to bring in the garden soil or the heavy groceries.
  • Avoid lifting above shoulder height. Use a stool to put items on a shelf
  • Think before lifting heavy items off the floor. If it’s light you might get away with bending forward but as the weight increases you need to squat and keep your back straight.
  • Keep the weight close to your belly

Work smarter– Often we don’t think about our technique or our set-up when a task is repetitive or prolonged.  These activities seem easy however they frequently involve the smaller muscles in our hands and elbows.  These muscles tire more quickly. Straining these tissues is often unrelated to the volume of work but more often can be traced to how we do the activity.  When our set-up is poor (ergonomics) it causes us to work harder than we need to. The key to avoiding these injuries is to make better decisions.

Here are 5 simple and effective ways to limit injury.

  1. Don’t perch – sit!  Everyone tells you to sit up straight but it’s even more important to use the back of our chair.  Sitting on the edge of the chair increases the tension in our back muscles
  2. Blood doesn’t flow well uphill. Positioning your hands above the height of the elbows causes more work for our circulatory system.  Our arteries bring the nutrition needed to fuel activities and to repair strains. Hands should be positioned level or tilted slightly lower than the elbows.
  3. Nothing changes posture faster than vision.  If you can’t see the words on the screen most people will perch at the front of their chair or slouch forward to bring their eyes closer to the screen.  Moving your monitor forward is a better solution.
  4. Stay grounded. Feet dangling or resting on your toes are some of the most common bad habits I see in my practice. The problem is that these positions create too much strain on your back and leg muscles and cause fatigue.
  5. The problem with portable computers is they are portable  For over 4 decades we have been studying how to improve work ergonomics (relation of man to machine).  We finally have it right, understanding the height of your chair, monitor, desk etc., when suddenly many of us are no longer working at our desk.  If you are using portable devices try to use them better.  Work most of the time at a desk.  Hold your smart phone up towards your eyes rather than dropping your head. Remember that your head only weighs around 12 lb. when it is centered over your neck but the demand increases to 60 lb. when you drop it fully!

If you are injured these tips are also helpful in your recovery however it is also important to have your physiotherapist look for other issues.  Undetected weakness, poor coordination and compensatory movement patterns can all prolong your recovery from these debilitating and painful injuries. To book an appointment contact us at 416 925 4687 or email

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