What Is Repetitive Strain Injury?

  • Trisha Govender Diplomas in Journalism, Human Nutrition, and Effective Writing, Alison

Repetitive strain injury, often referred to as RSI is a group of musculoskeletal disorders1 that impact muscles, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels. Its presence causes recurring pain and discomfort, which can range in intensity.

RSI is typically associated with individuals in certain professions2 as it is triggered by repeated, monotonous movement. However, research shows that the risk of development spreads across a wider demographic, as proven by occupational health and safety specialist Matthew MacLeod

He imparted some valuable information in this respect, stating, "These types of injuries can affect workers in any industry, including those who are involved in physically demanding jobs and those involved in office work."

MacLeod also mentioned, "There are many common activities that can lead to these types of injuries." This tells us anyone engaging in repetitive motions or strain could develop the condition. 

The RSI Family

Generally, RSI related conditions are classified based on the affected body part.3 Here's a detailed breakdown of some of the common conditions that belong to the RSI family:

Upper Extremities:4

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Hand/Wrist)
  • Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis) (Elbow/Forearm)
  • Golfer's Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis) (Elbow/Forearm)
  • Shoulder Tendonitis (Rotator Cuff Tendonitis) (Shoulder)

Lower Extremities:5

  • Patellar Tendonitis (Jumper's Knee) (Knee)
  • Achilles Tendonitis (Achilles Tendon/Heel)

Neck and Back:6

  • Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (Collarbone/Upper Chest)
  • Back Pain (Spine/Back)

Musculoskeletal or Whole-Body:7

  • Generalized Muscle Pain
  • Tendinitis (Various Body Parts)

What Causes RSI?

The primary cause of RSI is in the name itself - Repetitive Strain Injury. It occurs when specific muscles and tendons become irritated and inflamed due to repetitive motions. These repetitive movements can be major or minor.

This means that causes can go from prolonged clicking of a mouse or typing at a keyboard to more strenuous actions like lifting heavy objects. The critical factor here is the repetition, which, over time, can strain the affected areas and lead to discomfort and pain.

Understanding these fundamental triggers or causes is the first step toward effectively managing and preventing RSI. Other causes include:

CauseWhy it Causes RSI
Poor Ergonomics and Awkward PosturesBeing in poorly designed workspaces or using certain equipment that forces your body into awkward positions can contribute to RSI. In addition, holding  your body in awkward positions for extended periods can strain muscles and tendons, making RSI more likely.
Forceful ActivitiesEngaging in activities that require forceful or excessive muscle effort, such as heavy lifting or forceful gripping, can increase the risk of RSI.
Lack of Rest or Failed RecoveryFailing to take breaks or not giving your body enough time to recover from repetitive motions or sports activities can increase the risk of RSI.
VibrationExposure to constant vibration, such as when using power tools or machinery, can contribute to RSI over time.  
Cold TemperaturesWorking in cold environments may reduce blood flow to the muscles, making them more susceptible to injury.
GeneticsSome individuals may be genetically predisposed to conditions that make them more susceptible to RSI.
AgeRSI risk can increase with age due to changes in muscle and tendon flexibility.

Common RSI Risk Factors

RSI results from repetitive movements that gradually damage muscles and tendons. There are many factors that can increase your risk of developing RSI. Some include:

  • Occupation: Certain professions that involve repetitive motions, such as data entry, manufacturing, and cashier work, can heighten the risk of RSI.
  • Hobbies and Activities: Recreational activities like playing musical instruments or sports such as soccer can also lead to RSI if performed excessively and without proper technique or adequate recovery from injuries.
  • Physical Factors: Repeatedly using the same muscles, maintaining a fixed posture for extended periods, or adopting unnatural postures like holding your arms overhead can all increase the likelihood of RSI.
  • Inadequate Physical Fitness: A lack of physical fitness or insufficient exercise can contribute to RSI by weakening the body's ability to withstand repetitive stress.
  • Previous Injuries or Conditions: Prior issues like wrist, back, or shoulder problems may predispose you to RSI.
  • Age and Gender: RSI is common among those between 30-60 years old. It's also seen more often in females than males. The Institute for Work and Health found that more women report developing or having work-related RSIs than men.8 

These collective risk factors underscore the importance of recognizing the signs and taking preventive measures to avoid the discomfort and impairment associated with RSI.

Early Warning Signs and Common Symptoms

Picking up on early warning signs and symptoms is crucial for effectively diagnosing and managing RSI or preventing the condition from progressing. These symptoms/sensations typically manifest in one specific part of the body.

Let's look at them below:

  • Pins and needles
  • Tenderness, swelling
  • Throbbing, weakness
  • Sensitivity to cold or heat
  • Stiffness, tingling or numbness
  • Dull, aching, or sharp pain ranging from mild to severe

The intensity of these symptoms can also worsen, transitioning from the acute stage (mild and manageable symptoms) to the chronic stage (intense and debilitating symptoms) if the condition is left untreated.

Diagnosis of RSI: Acute vs Chronic

Diagnosing RSI involves visiting a healthcare professional who conducts specific assessments and observations to identify the type and stage of RSI you are experiencing.9 RSI disorders can be diagnosed as acute or chronic.

Acute RSI is the initial stage of this condition, characterized by less severe and more manageable symptoms. In this stage, the symptoms of RSI may not exhibit intense discomfort or disability. Acute forms of the condition are caused by repetitive and sustained stress on the body's soft tissue structures. While the symptoms may be milder during this stage, they should not be underestimated.

Chronic RSI, on the other hand, is the condition's more advanced and often debilitating stage, so, in essence, the opposite of the acute stage. It is caused by cumulative stress placed on the body's soft tissue structures. This advanced stage differs significantly from acute RSI because the symptoms intensify quite a bit, making routine tasks an uphill battle.

Besides affecting physical abilities, the chronic stage extends to the mental plain due to the stress of prolonged pain and functional limitations. Studies have shown that individuals with RSI often experience psychological distress (anxiety, depression, stress) due to the ambiguous nature of the condition and the uncertainty surrounding its prognosis.10

The journey from acute RSI to the chronic stage can be gradual. Therefore, recognizing and promptly addressing the early warning signs in the acute phase is critical. Early intervention can prevent the progression to the chronic stage, making management more effective and potentially avoiding long-term disability.

RSI Treatments Explained

RSI treatments can involve a range of approaches tailored to the severity and type of specific conditions. The initial treatment for RSI symptoms is typically conservative and may include:

  • RICE Rest, ice, compression, and elevation
  • Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): These can be taken orally or applied topically to manage pain and inflammation
  • Steroid Injections: In some cases, injections may be recommended
  • Exercises: Physical therapy can help strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, and teach proper body mechanics to reduce the risk of RSI

As the condition progresses, more comprehensive approaches may be necessary, including:

  • Medications: 

OTC or prescription painkillers can help manage the discomfort associated with RSI. Anti-inflammatory drugs, NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), may also be useful for reducing inflammation in affected areas.

  • Surgical Interventions: 

In cases where conservative treatments fail or if there is severe nerve compression, surgery may be required. Common surgical procedures for RSI conditions often involve releasing pressure on nerves or repairing damaged tendons.

  •  Lifestyle Modifications: 

Maintaining good ergonomic practices like adjusting your workspace, maintaining proper posture, and reducing strain on muscles and tendons are long-term solutions. In addition, staying active and taking regular breaks during repetitive activities. Rehabilitation and exercises recommended by a healthcare provider can help improve strength, flexibility, and overall function.

Tips to Prevent the Development of RSI

Whether you work at a desk or engage in vigorous repetitive tasks, preventing RSI starts with maintaining good posture and proper form. Listening to your body is crucial; if you feel pain or sustain an injury, stop and allow yourself enough time to rest and recover. Break up prolonged activities, repetitive actions, or extended periods of sitting with frequent mini-breaks to stretch and move around.

Flexing various parts of your body can also be beneficial. Additionally, consider using support aids tailored to your needs. For example, if you stand for most of the day, anti-fatigue shoes can help, and if you sit, investing in a lumbar support chair can make a significant difference. The key is to break down repetitive actions and reduce strain on your body.


RSI conditions bring relentless discomfort and can affect anyone trapped in a repetitive strain cycle that forgoes appropriate form, rest, and recovery. We looked at different nuances of the condition and identified that early detection, diagnosis, and treatment are the best ways to avoid threading into chronic forms of the condition, which can be debilitating. If you find yourself in the same motion daily with your tasks or recreational activities, take the preventative approach to swiftly avoid developing RSI conditions.


  1. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders & ergonomics | workplace health strategies by condition | workplace health promotion | cdc [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2023 Oct 26]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/health-strategies/musculoskeletal-disorders/index.html
  2. Peacock B. Rsi: the fact and figures and how you can claim [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2023 Oct 26]. Available from: https://www.beechampeacock.co.uk/news/rsi-fact-figures-can-claim/, https://www.beechampeacock.co.uk/news/rsi-fact-figures-can-claim/
  3. Repetitive strain - an overview | sciencedirect topics [Internet]. [cited 2023 Oct 26]. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/repetitive-strain
  4. Bhattacharya AK, Awan OA, Fenerty S, Taqi I, Jonnalagadda P, Ling S, et al. Repetitive strain injuries of the upper extremity: imaging of tendon pathology and compressive neuropathies. Curr Probl Diagn Radiol. 2021;50(4):512–22. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32826098/
  5. Ishøi L, Krommes K, Husted RS, Juhl CB, Thorborg K. Diagnosis, prevention and treatment of common lower extremity muscle injuries in sport – grading the evidence: a statement paper commissioned by the Danish Society of Sports Physical Therapy (Dssf). Br J Sports Med [Internet]. 2020 May 1 [cited 2023 Oct 26];54(9):528–37. Available from: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/54/9/528
  6. Back and neck pain [Internet]. [cited 2023 Oct 26]. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/back-pain
  7. Yassi A. Repetitive strain injuries. Lancet. 1997 Mar 29;349(9056):943–7.
  8. Risk of repetitive strain injury different across gender in some fields: study [Internet]. [cited 2023 Oct 26]. Available from: https://www.iwh.on.ca/newsletters/at-work/73/risk-of-repetitive-strain-injury-different-across-gender-in-some-fields-study
  9. News-Medical.net [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2023 Oct 26]. Diagnosis of repetitive strain injury (Rsi). Available from: https://www.news-medical.net/health/Diagnosis-of-repetitive-strain-injury-(RSI).aspx
  10. Ewan C, Lowy E, Reid J. ‘Falling out of culture’: the effects of repetition strain injury on sufferers’ roles and identity. Sociology Health & Illness [Internet]. 1991 Jun [cited 2023 Oct 26];13(2):168–92. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9566.ep11340787
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Trisha Govender

Diplomas in Journalism, Human Nutrition, and Effective Writing

I am a seasoned health writer with extensive experience in the medical field spanning over several years. My expertise is a fusion of investigative prowess and an unwavering passion for all facets of healthcare. Holding diplomas in Journalism, Human Nutrition, and Effective Writing, along with certification and practical experience in Ancillary Healthcare and Telehealt —I possess a solid foundation that enables me to navigate the scientific intricacies of medical/health-related topics.

My approach goes beyond the surface, as I aim to translate complex theories into reader friendly information without sacrificing medical stance. This ensures readers gain accurate knowledge that can drive change toward improving their health.

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