Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) Prevention Washington DC

RSI is actually an umbrella term for several cumulative trauma disorders caused by overuse of the hand and arm, says RSI expert Deborah Quilter. And an RSI can prove particularly perplexing for medical professionals to treat.

Vicki Lee Star, MD
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David Gilbert Borenstein
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Werner F Barth, MD
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David Gilbert Borenstein, MD
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Repetitive Strain Injuries

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By Suzanne Gerber

Most of us who do manual labor—and make no mistake, computer work is manual labor—take our hands for granted. Whenever we get those little aches and pains—tight wrists or fingers, sore necks, or stiff lower backs—we tend to shrug them off. Or perhaps we do a little self-massage or rub in some arnica cream. But these minor discomforts are actually the first signals that our muscles, tendons, and nerves have weakened. The crippling pain that comes with a full-blown repetitive strain injury (RSI) may not manifest for years, and by then, it might be too late to do anything. Also known as repetitive stress disorder, work-related musculoskeletal disorder, or cumulative trauma disorder, RSI has become one of the most pervasive conditions in the modern workplace, accounting for two-thirds of all nonfatal work-related injuries.

Know the enemy

RSI is actually an umbrella term for several cumulative trauma disorders caused by overuse of the hand and arm, says RSI expert Deborah Quilter. And an RSI can prove particularly perplexing for medical professionals to treat. “For starters, it defies typical diagnostic tools,” explains Jane Bear-Lehman, PhD, a licensed occupational therapist (OT) and professor at New York University. “It’s not a ‘coded disease,’ it has multiple components, it can change over time or throughout the day, and, frankly, we still don’t know what to do about it.”

Quilter was a health writer when she herself came down with RSI in 1991. Little was known about the condition back then, and she had no recourse but to educate herself on the subject. Her journey included becoming a certified personal trainer and yoga teacher and learning about nutrition. Today Quilter studies Feldenkrais technique in a teacher-training program. As she has learned, RSI can affect the fingers, wrists, forearms, upper arms, shoulder, and neck. The “repetitive” or “cumulative” tag means that the motion, when done in isolation, isn’t severe enough to cause damage. But when done repeatedly, without sufficient recovery time, it fatigues muscles and tears soft tissues, causing swelling and pain, and it leads to conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis and golfer’s elbow, tendonitis, and Blackberry and Nintendo thumb. The worst part of a diagnosis? RSI is often irreversible. To find relief, patients must modify their lifestyle and change the way they use their afflicted areas. This isn’t just a disease for typists—equally at risk are knitters, dentists, carpenters, graphic designers, jewelers, and musicians.

RSI wrecks lives. Once their hands are crippled, people can’t perform the most basic life functions, from getting dressed to cooking meals to picking up their children. Yet denial is a powerful human defensive mechanism, especially when acknowledging that the onset of RSI might interfere with our livelihood or passion. It’s easier to say “this will never happen to me” than it is to take preventive action.

Prevention is key

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