Smartphone thumb. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Tennis elbow. Mousing shoulder. Texting tendonitis. These are just a few common examples of repetitive strain injuries, which affect the daily lives of thousands. When we frequently perform the same or similar movements, especially if we use less-than-ideal body positioning, the body responds with strain, tightening, and inflammation. This, in turn, can produce pain, tingling, numbness, and lack of mobility as the body restricts around nerves and blood vessels.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is commonly defined as an overuse injury affecting the musculoskeletal and nervous system. While often associated with the workplace, recreational activities (including use of smartphones, tablets, and laptops) can also contribute to these syndromes. The most common RSIs affect the hand and arm, producing pain, numbness, and tingling anywhere from the fingertips to the whole length of the arm. Since these are soft-tissue injuries, involving muscles, tendons, and nerves, they can be challenging to diagnose accurately, but they often respond well to treatment, especially manual therapy.
RSIs can develop in any situation where the same or similar movements are frequently repeated, and are aggravated when our bodies are poorly aligned. Muscles are designed to work most efficiently when we are in neutral alignment. If we are not acting from a neutral position, our muscles work harder in contraction and often never fully relax, producing chronic tension and inflammation. That tension and inflammation in the muscle and fascial tissue can then compress or restrict nerves, triggering pain, numbness, or tingling along the pathway of the nerve. Other symptoms often include limits to range of motion or reduced flexibility in the affected area, and some people also note decreased strength and endurance. In most cases, symptoms are exaggerated when repeating the motions that produced the injury in the first place.
The most frequent treatments include anti-inflammatory medications (usually for temporary relief), often with rest and splinting of the injured body part to limit aggravating movements. Physical therapy to balance compensatory patterns and/or occupational therapy or ergonomic consultation to facilitate better body alignment in work and recreational activity may also be included. Manual therapy, including myofascial release, can be a key component in treatment and prevention of RSIs. The gentle, prolonged stretching of myofascial release helps the muscles to completely relax, opening space around the nerves and reducing symptoms. This therapy also helps to restore the body’s alignment to neutral, both in the affected area and through the rest of the body, helping to prevent recurrence of symptoms. Self-treatment with myofascial release, especially fascial stretching, is an important element of recovery and prevention.
Prevention is perhaps the most important component of handling RSIs. Whether at work or at home, when using a computer, smartphone, or engaging in any other repetitive-movement activity, be sure to take frequent ‘stretch breaks’ – look at something else, stand up and walk around a little, move in ways that reverse whatever postural pattern you’ve been in. It’s easier to resolve these injury strain patterns before they get to the point of producing symptoms, so stop and check in with your body frequently!