Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is an umbrella term for a set of injuries that occur as a result of excessive and repetitive demands made on the body. There are hundreds of known RSIs, but they all have a similar cause: excessive wear and tear on soft tissues. In the past several years, RSI in various forms has shown up in the popular media a lot. This is due to the incredible increase in computer usage by people, both at home and at work. While occasional use of computers is not a problem for the vast majority of people, excessive computer usage can easily lead to various forms of RSI. Of course, some people must use computers extensively to do their jobs, and many do so for their own entertainment and education. There are steps that people in these situations can take to prevent RSI, that still allow them to use computers effectively.
Numerous common types of RSI connected with excessive computer use have been identified. The most commonly known is carpal tunnel syndrome. This is a wrist condition in which the median nerve is compressed within the carpal tunnel. Many RSIs are caused in a similar way, with a nerve being compressed either directly, or due to inflammation of the surrounding tissue. Another general class of RSI is that in which tendons become swollen or inflamed, causing pain, and sometimes direct impingement of movement. RSI can have affects on other senses as well, with vision being the most commonly connected with computer use.
In general, there are countless ways of causing RSI. If we looking at computer use specifically, there are certain categories of practices that can be found. The first and most obvious, is continuous typing. With each keystroke, the typist puts stress on their fingers. Doing this for long, uninterrupted periods of time is almost a guarantee of developing symptoms. There are numerous other things involved in using computers that are strong risks for RSI. Many variants of poor posture can cause problems, both directly and indirectly. Sitting in an improper position for long periods of time strains the muscles involved, and using a computer without proper posture often increases the stresses on the parts of the body directly involved.
There are numerous symptoms of RSI. Some of the typical ones are tightness, general soreness, dull ache, throbbing, sharp pain, numbness, tingling, burning, swelling, and loss of strength in the upper extremities. Perhaps more problematic than the plethora of symptoms, is the fact that they do not necessarily occur in obvious connection with the activity that is causing them. For instance, symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome frequently occur at night, while one is trying to sleep. Before an activity has gone on long enough to cause actual injury, there may be warning signs that the strain is excessive. Localised fatigue, aches, pains, loss of strength, and trembling limbs are definitely things to pay attention to, and they will increase as the activity is continued. If the activity is stopped, and the body is given time to heal, these symptoms will decrease and/or disappear. If they do not, it is likely that the stress has reached the point of injury.
The long term effects of RSI are very serious. Ultimately, many forms of RSI can be crippling. Serious long-term damage can result from leaving RSI untreated. If the activity causing it is continued, one can be left unable to do the most basic things. Lifting and carrying small items, opening doors, or even using a fork, can all become painful, and sometimes impossible tasks. In many cases, particularly the more severe ones, the effects can never be completely reversed. Long term treatment can give the sufferer back a normal life, but they must always be on guard, and acute symptoms will reassert themselves quickly if they are not careful.
Those most at risk for computer-related RSI are those for whom a significant part their job entails using a computer. Almost anyone in a modern office setting is at risk, not only computer professionals, but secretaries, managers, salespersons, and everyone in between. As more and more of the work that people do is done on computers, they must become more and more vigilant of the risk factors that they are facing, and the consequences of ignoring them.
All of the symptoms mentioned above (in the common symptoms paragraph) are to various degrees, warning signs of RSI. Often they are obviously and directly connected with the activity that is causing them, but it must be reiterated that this is not always the case. Symptoms can show up anytime, anywhere, and during any activity (or even non-activity). The onset of acute symptoms may be instantaneous, or they may develop slowly over months, or even years. Perhaps the best way for a possible sufferer to determine if a symptom is RSI-related is to stop the activity in question, or at least follow the appropriate prevention techniques, and pay attention to what their body is telling them.
If you believe that you are at risk for RSI, or are experiencing symptoms, there are several things you can (and should) do. If you are experiencing symptoms, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. Preferably a specialist, as a general practitioner may not be very familiar with RSI. Whether you have symptoms or not, you should always avoid, or at least minimize activities that put you at risk. Repetitive motion, bad posture, excessive muscular exertion, static exertion, and direct pressure on nerves or tendons are all risk factors. In more concrete terms, while using a computer:
This section should say some stuff about other, non computer-related activities that can cause RSI.
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RSI is not a new problem, but with computers growing ever more popular, it is becoming more serious. In its current form, the personal computer almost encourages practices which lead to RSI, so users must be vigilant. Abandoning computers is not a viable option, and while there are movements under way to reform the interface, these still require a lot of development before they are ready for the mass market. In the meantime, those who use computers can take a few easy preventative measures to avoid it and continue to use them efficiently and effectively.