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What is an RSI?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A repetitive strain injury (RSI) is an injury caused by repetition of routine physical tasks. Also known as repetitive stress injuries, RSIs were primarily associated with sporting activities until the late 20th century, when computers became standard in the workplace and doctors noticed a sharp uptick in non-sports related RSIs. The diagnosis of RSI is controversial in some regions, as this condition is sometimes poorly defined, and people who claim to have strain injuries are sometimes accused of malingering.

The cause of an RSI is believed to be repeated motion or regular use of a tool within a very limited range of motion. Keyboarding is a classic example of an activity which can lead to strain, as are activities like tennis, running machine equipment on an assembly line, and golf. The incidence of such injuries can be avoided by using proper posture at work or play, taking regular rest breaks, building up strength, and avoiding overuse, among other things.

The term “RSI” is often used to refer to a whole family of physical issues also known as overuse syndromes or cumulative trauma disorders, including very clearly defined conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome. When a patient appears in a doctor's office seeking medical attention for pain and tenderness which cannot be linked with a specific medical issue but are believed to be associated with repetitive activities, the doctor may determine that the patient has an RSI even if no diagnostic proof can be obtained.

Symptoms of an RSI include pain, tenderness, tingling, tightness, weakness, and bruising around the area of the body which is used for a repetitive activity. Computer users, for example, often experience these symptoms in the hands and arms. Medical imaging studies may not reveal anything functionally wrong, although the patient reports pain and tenderness, and a doctor can see that the patient responds when the area is pressured or handled during an examination. Weakness may also be demonstrated in grasping tests.

Treatment for RSI can vary, depending on the nature of the injury. Rest is usually recommended, and patients may need to undergo physical therapy or surgery to treat specific issues. The patient will also usually be encouraged to learn new methods of moving so that he or she can avoid repeating the injury after a return to the previous activity. A doctor may also recommend that a patient consider alternatives to the activity which caused the RSI. A typist, for example, could use dictation software instead of a keyboard.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Jan 18, 2015

If you think you might be starting to get RSI definitely take it seriously. Try to give that body-part complete rest until the pain goes away and then figure out how to do your daily activities without making it flare up again.

Chronic pain is not a joke. It's exhausting and it's very difficult to control once you injure yourself in the first place. RSI injuries are rarely fixed completely and basically, aside from rest and recovery, your options are probably going to be limited to either a steroid injection or surgery (which probably won't do much).

One of the reasons typing in particular is bad for you is that your hands are being put in an unnatural position, so one way to think about it is to try and adjust your working conditions so that you aren't constantly straining yourself. Ergonomic furniture can help, but it's really up to you to be smart about the design and positioning of the equipment you use.

By croydon — On Jan 17, 2015

@KoiwiGal - A simple strain isn't really RSI. I think it has to be fairly chronic before it can be called that officially. But it is a good lesson to learn as it's very possible for a strain to turn into RSI.

I often get very sore on the backs of my hands if I type too much or for too long, but I've gotten better at doing stretching exercises that seem to relieve it.

I've also heard of people using software that will stop them at regular intervals to rest their hands (and back and arms as well) and that seems to get good results as well.

By KoiwiGal — On Jan 16, 2015

I've never gotten RSI from typing even though I do a lot of it, but I suspect that's because I pause a lot and move my hands around so they're in different positions, which is what you're supposed to do to prevent pain.

But recently I managed to really hurt the tendons in my thumb from using my tablet to play a game. It wasn't even that great of a game, but I became mildly obsessed with beating the high score and sat for an hour at a time just tapping with my thumb. It didn't even occur to me that I could injure myself, but now I can barely move my thumb without pain.

It's extremely annoying to have done this to myself over something so pointless, but I guess at least it's a good lesson.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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