Understanding Repetitive Stress Injuries

Millions of People in the United States Are Affected

Woman sitting at a desk and rubbing her wrist in pain
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Repetitive stress injuries include a large group of conditions that primarily affect the soft tissues, including the nerves, tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Repetitive stress injuries are caused by repeated motions performed in the course of normal work or daily activities. Repetitive stress injuries are also called cumulative trauma disorders, repetitive motion disorders, and overuse syndromes.

Repetitive stress injuries can include:

Causes

Repetitive stress injuries are caused by:

  • too many uninterrupted repetitions of an activity or motion
  • unnatural or awkward motions such as twisting the arm or wrist
  • overexertion
  • incorrect posture
  • muscle fatigue

Common Sites of Injury

Repetitive stress injuries occur most commonly in the:

  • hands
  • fingers
  • thumbs
  • wrists
  • elbows
  • shoulders

Repetitive stress injuries can also affect the:

  • neck
  • back
  • hips
  • knees
  • feet
  • legs
  • ankles

Signs and Symptoms

Repetitive stress injuries are often characterized by:

  • pain
  • tingling
  • numbness
  • visible swelling or redness of the affected area
  • loss of flexibility and strength of the affected area

Some people may have no visible sign of injury, although they may find it hard to perform usual tasks. But, over time, repetitive stress injuries can cause temporary or permanent damage to the soft tissues in the body, such as the:

  • muscles
  • nerves
  • tendons
  • ligaments

Repetitive stress injuries can also cause compression of nerves or tissue.

Who Is Affected

Typically, repetitive stress injuries affect people who perform repetitive tasks, such as:

  • assembly line work
  • meatpacking
  • sewing
  • playing musical instruments
  • computer work
  • carpentry
  • gardening
  • tennis

Treatment Options

Treatment for repetitive stress injuries usually includes reducing or stopping the motions that cause symptoms. Repetitive stress injury treatment options can also include:

  • taking breaks to give the affected area time to rest
  • adopting stretching and relaxation exercises
  • applying ice to the affected area to reduce pain and swelling
  • using medications such as:
    • pain relievers
    • corticosteroids
    • NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
  • splints may be able to relieve pressure on the muscles and nerves
  • physical therapy may relieve the soreness and pain in the muscles and joints
  • In rare cases, surgery may be required to relieve symptoms and prevent permanent damage.

Some employers have developed ergonomic programs to help workers adjust their pace of work and arrange equipment to minimize problems.

Prognosis

Most individuals with repetitive stress injuries recover completely and can avoid re-injury by:

  • changing the way they perform repetitive movements
  • changing the frequency with which they perform them
  • changing the amount of time they rest between movements.

Without treatment, repetitive stress injuries may result in permanent injury and complete loss of function in the affected area.

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View Article Sources
  • NINDS. Repetitive Motion Disorders Information Page. Last modified July 11, 2013.