What Is a Repetitive Stress Injury?

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Repetitive stress injuries are caused by motions that you repeat throughout the day. These motions put strain on your body that can gradually damage tendons, ligaments, muscles, and nerves.

Sometimes repetitive stress injuries happen at work, whether you're typing at a computer or lifting heavy boxes. They could also happen in sports with repeated motions, such as swinging a tennis racquet or pitching a baseball.

Repetitive stress injuries are also called cumulative trauma disorders, repetitive motion disorders, and overuse syndromes.

This article discusses the symptoms and causes of repetitive stress injuries. It also covers how they're diagnosed and treated and how you can prevent them.

Woman sitting at a desk and rubbing her wrist in pain
Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Types of Repetitive Stress Injuries

Repetitive stress injuries include many different muscular conditions that are associated with repeated motions or tasks. Some common conditions include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: Compression of a nerve in the wrist that causes numbness in the first three fingers and weakness in the hand
  • Trigger finger: Inflammation of the tendon sheaths that causes your fingers to get stuck when bent into your palm
  • Bursitis: Fluid-filled cushions in the joints (called bursa) that become inflamed
  • Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis): Inflammation or small tears of the tendons attaching the forearm muscles to the outside of the elbow

Symptoms

Repetitive stress injuries usually occur in parts of the body involved with repeated motions throughout your day. It usually happens in the hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. However, it can also affect other areas, including your neck, back, knees, and ankles.

If you have a repetitive stress injury, you may feel pain, tingling, numbness, stiffness, or weakness in the affected area. You may also see swelling and redness and hear clicking or popping in a joint when you move it.

Causes and Risk Factors

Repetitive stress injuries can be caused by:

  • Repeated motions or tasks
  • Awkward positions
  • Forceful exertion
  • Contact stress (such as resting your wrist on the end of the desk)
  • Incorrect posture
  • Vibration (such as using power tools)
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Lack of recovery time

Some work environments or sports can increase your risk for repetitive stress injuries. These can include:

  • Assembly line work
  • Computer work
  • Bricklaying
  • Knitting
  • Working at a cash register
  • Playing musical instruments
  • Carpentry
  • Golfing
  • Tennis

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will do an examination to help determine whether you have a repetitive stress injury. They'll ask you about your personal history, your daily work environment, and recreational activities.

They may also order imaging tests to help provide a diagnosis. These tests can be used to diagnose repetitive stress injuries or to rule out other conditions. Imaging tests may include:

  • Ultrasound: Used to evaluate your nerves, tissues, and surrounding structures
  • X-ray: Provides images of the bones to rule out other conditions, like fractures
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Provides a detailed look at the body's soft tissues and abnormalities that may be affecting the nerves

Nerve conduction studies and an electromyogram (EMG) may also be ordered to test for muscle and nerve damage.

Treatment

To treat a repetitive stress injury, it's important to limit or avoid the actions that are causing your symptoms. In addition, your healthcare provider may recommend some conservative at-home remedies.

For example, you will likely need to take breaks to relieve the affected area. You can put ice on the injury (no more than 20 minutes at a time) to help with swelling and pain.

Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil (ibuprofen), Tylenol (acetaminophen), and Aleve (naproxen) can also help with swelling and pain.

You may need to use a splint (such as on your wrist for carpal tunnel syndrome) to help stabilize the area and relieve pressure.

Your healthcare provider may also recommend stretching exercises as well as physical therapy to help relieve symptoms. With more severe or persistent cases, your healthcare provider may discuss whether surgery is an option.

If your injury is related to work, your healthcare provider may recommend an ergonomic assessment. This helps you learn how to adjust your work equipment, workstation set-up, or tasks to support healthy work habits.

Prognosis

With early diagnosis and treatment, most individuals with repetitive stress injuries can expect a full recovery. However, without treatment, repetitive motion disorders can lead to permanent injury of the area.

It's important to see your healthcare professional if you have symptoms of a repetitive stress injury. Through treatment and modifying risk factors, you can help ensure that your injury heals effectively.

Prevention

Different types of activities can lead to various repetitive stress injuries. However, there are some general tips that you can use to help avoid these types of conditions.

Take regular breaks during the day from any repetitive activities. Use good posture. Stretch your muscles throughout the day.

When working at a computer, make sure your seat, computer, and monitor are lined up correctly. You should have your back supported, head and neck upright, feet on the floor, and wrists in a neutral position.

Summary

Repetitive stress injuries are caused by repeated motions that gradually damage your tendons, ligaments, muscles, or nerves.

They commonly affect areas on your upper body, like your shoulders, elbows, or wrists. But they can also affect other areas, like your back, knees, and ankles. Some symptoms include pain, tingling, numbness, stiffness, and weakness of the area.

Make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of a repetitive stress injury. They can help provide treatment so you can make a full recovery. They can also give you tips on how to prevent repetitive stress injuries in the future.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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