Repetitive strain injury: A modern workplace epidemic

RSI has become a common diagnosis for many factory and office workers, with the condition spreading so rapidly that it has been dubbed “the foremost work-related sickness of the end of this century” by the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. This has led many to believe that RSI is a modern-day disease, but in reality, the problem has been around for centuries.

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) has become a prevalent health issue in today's modern workplace. As technological advancements continue to shape our lives, the repetitive and prolonged use of electronic devices and performing tasks with poor ergonomics have contributed to the rise in RSI cases.

One such case is that of John, a dedicated financial analyst. John spent most of his day typing on his computer and using a mouse to navigate through spreadsheets and financial reports.  Despite his passion for his job, John began to experience pain and discomfort in his wrists and hands, which eventually led to a diagnosis of RSI.  The condition not only affected his work productivity but also his overall quality of life.

John's story is just one example of how RSI can impact individuals in various professions, highlighting the need for greater awareness and prevention measures.

This article aims to explore the history, causes, symptoms, prevention, and management of RSI, shedding light on the importance of creating a safe and healthy work environment. By understanding the risks and implementing proper ergonomic practices, we can mitigate the impact of RSI and promote the well-being of employees in today's technology-driven workplaces.

A new disease?

RSI has become a common diagnosis for many factory and office workers, with the condition spreading so rapidly that it has been dubbed “the foremost work-related sickness of the end of this century” by the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.  This has led many to believe that RSI is a modern-day disease, but in reality, the problem has been around for centuries.

In fact, if John had lived in Europe in the early 18th century, a doctor may have recognised his symptoms.

The Italian doctor Bernardino Ramazzini described the problem as wrist tenosynovitis (inflammation of the tendons and surrounding sheaths) and called it the illness “of scribes and notaries,” as the repetitive movements required in those professions had given clerks the 18th-century version of RSI.

Historical evidence suggests that people have been experiencing similar symptoms for centuries. In the early 1700s, a condition known as “scrivener's palsy” was prevalent among clerks who spent long hours writing by hand.  In the 1800s, telegraph operators suffered from “telegrapher's cramp,” and in the 1900s, typists experienced “typist's cramp.”

These conditions were all characterised by pain, numbness, and weakness in the hands, wrists and arms.

They were caused by repetitive and prolonged use of specific muscles.

Despite the similarities between RSI then and now, the number of workers suffering from the condition had gone down by the end of the 18th century.

This raises the question: Why did the prevalence of RSI decrease? The history of RSI shows that the condition has gone through a fall and rise. In the preindustrial age, office clerks worked long hours without the help of machines, resulting in RSI-type afflictions due to repetitive movements and constant mental attention.  However, by the end of the 18th century, Europe had moved into the industrial age, and machine power replaced manpower. This change reduced the occurrence of RSI among labourers, according to a doctor who studied the history of RSI.

Despite the rise of work accidents and occupational illnesses among factory workers during the industrial age, medical literature from that period only mentions RSI cases among specific groups, such as pianists and tennis players.  However, in our modern century, job-related RSI has returned. This is due to increasingly efficient machines that often dictate what workers must do and how fast they must do it, leading to dissatisfaction and health problems.

Workers are forced to make repetitive movements and demand constant mental attention, resulting in RSI becoming a health problem that now accounts for more than 50% of all work-related illnesses among workers in countries like the United States and Brazil.

Causes of RSI

RSI is primarily caused by the rapid repetitive movements required in various job assignments.  Unfortunately, workers often find themselves in situations where they have little choice but to continue working in jobs that may harm their health.

Take, for example, the Brazilian woman who worked in an automobile plant and had to assemble radios in less than a minute each.

Another worker mentioned in Folha de S. Paulo had to perform tests that involved hitting 63 appliances with a rubber hammer every hour.  Both women experienced pain in their upper arms and were eventually laid off due to disability caused by RSI.

In addition to rapid repetitive movements, overtaxing one's muscles and joints and maintaining static efforts can also contribute to RSI. These actions are particularly risky when performed in uncomfortable positions.

Researchers have identified several occupations that are particularly prone to RSI.  These include metallurgists, bank clerks, keyboard operators, telephone operators, supermarket cashiers, waiters, house painters, toy assemblers, seamstresses and hairdressers.  Additionally, musicians who play instruments that require repetitive motions, such as guitarists and pianists as well as athletes who engage in repetitive movements are also at risk.

By acknowledging the various occupations and activities at risk, we can take proactive steps to prevent RSI and prioritise the well-being of workers and individuals in various industries and pursuits. Common symptoms of RSI include pain, stiffness, weakness, tingling, and numbness in the affected areas. These symptoms may start during work hours but can progress to become persistent and interfere with daily activities. Seeking medical attention is crucial if you experience any of these symptoms to prevent further complications.  Reduced grip strength, difficulty performing daily tasks, and decreased range of motion in the affected areas are also common in individuals with RSI.

More than a movement

RSI is commonly associated with work that involves repetitive movements.

However, according to experts at the First National Seminar on RSI in Brasília, Brazil, there are many other factors involved. Dr Wanderley Codo, a mental health and work consultant, emphasised that the way work is organised, including the tasks, management-worker relationships, work climate, level of worker participation, and work routine, can strongly contribute to the development of RSI.  In fact, some medical experts suggest that new technologies have led to work organisation that can cause workers to lose control over their jobs, which can be a contributing factor to RSI.

It's important to note that RSI refers to a group of illnesses that affect muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments, especially in the upper limbs. Symptoms can be vague and may not be immediately connected to the causes. Signs of RSI can include a feeling of heaviness and discomfort in the affected body part, which can develop into persistent pain and a tingling sensation. Nodules or small lumps may also appear under the skin. In advanced stages, RSI can cause swelling and severe pain, making it difficult to perform even simple tasks like combing hair or brushing teeth. Left untreated, RSI can even lead to deformities and disability.

It's clear that identifying the causes and symptoms of RSI is crucial for preventing and treating the condition. Therefore, it's important to pay attention to the organisation of the workplace, as well as any signs of discomfort or pain in the upper limbs.

If you suspect you may have RSI, seek medical attention as soon as possible to prevent further damage.

Management and treatment

If you're experiencing signs of RSI and your job requires repetitive movements, seeking help from a medical professional is crucial to combat the illness. If your company doesn't offer medical services, you can visit an orthopedist to assess your condition and determine the necessary measures to help you recover.

The earlier you address RSI, the better your chances of recovery.

In addition to seeking medical attention, implementing ergonomics in the workplace is another important way to combat RSI.

Ergonomics refers to the science of designing and arranging things people use to interact most efficiently and safely. It involves adapting the workplace to the worker's physical and mental needs, not just improving the shape of tools or equipment.

According to ergonomist Dr. Ingeborg Sell, ergonomics utilises data, information, and knowledge from all participating disciplines to arrive at comprehensive knowledge about man and his work.  Participative ergonomics is a type of ergonomics that involves the worker's opinion in improving their workstation.  Employers who encourage participative ergonomics invite workers to share their ideas on how to improve their work environment. They also establish an in-house RSI committee made up of workers and management to monitor and prevent RSI cases within the firm. By implementing participative ergonomics, employers and employees can work together to tackle the causes of RSI, promote prevention, and define their responsibilities in controlling or eliminating RSI cases in the workplace.  It's important to prioritise ergonomics and participate in creating a safer, more comfortable work environment to prevent RSI and ensure long-term health and well-being.

Prevention at home and at work

Prevention of RSI starts at home, and there are several steps you can take to protect yourself. Begin your day by imitating your pet and stretching your muscles. Just like animals, stretching helps keep your bones and muscles healthy. Throughout the day, remember to repeat these stretches to maintain flexibility. Additionally, warm up your muscles with exercises to improve blood circulation and increase oxygen supply, especially in cold weather or before engaging in sports. Strengthening the specific muscles you use most will also help you perform tasks more efficiently at work.

In addition to home-based measures, implementing a prevention programme in the workplace is crucial. Employers can play a significant role in preventing RSI among workers by implementing a work schedule that includes breaks, job rotations, and changes in tasks.

This helps prevent overexertion and repetitive movements. Providing the right tools for workers is another important aspect of RSI prevention. This includes ensuring desks and chairs are at the correct height, using elbow pads for added support, utilising tools that require minimal hand force, providing user-friendly computer keyboards, and equipping heavy machinery with shock absorbers to reduce excessive vibration.

John, mentioned in the introduction, successfully implemented many of these prevention strategies and received medical treatment that eliminated his RSI symptoms.

With personal effort and organisational changes, a complete cure is within reach.

Despite the necessary adjustments, combating RSI is of utmost importance as the number of affected individuals in the workplace continues to rise.

The benefits of these preventive measures are likely to outweigh the associated costs.

Remember, taking proactive steps at home and work can significantly reduce the risk of RSI and contribute to your overall well-being.

  • Nyahuma is a finance professional with ZETDC. He has Bachelor of Commerce Honours  Degree in Accounting, HND in Business Studies and an MBA. He is a fellow member of SAAA and an associate member of CGAIZ (CIS) being the branch vice-chairperson of CGI Mutare.

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