Common repetitive strain injuries (RSI) are not new health problems, but the number of reported cases, especially among children, rose quickly in recent years due to gaming, texting, and computer use. Often brought on by frequent, repetitive motions that place stress on a specific part of the body, RSI affects millions of people in the U.S. alone and is the most common occupational health problem.
What is a Repetitive Strain Injury?
Repetitive strain injury is an umbrella term, covering various painful conditions of the tendons, muscles, nerves, and other soft tissues. It is also known as repetitive stress injury, cumulative trauma disorder, repetitive motion disorder, regional musculoskeletal disorder, and occupational overuse syndrome.
Among the most common repetitive strain injuries of the hand and arm are:
1 Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The most recognized repetitive strain injury and most common entrapment neuropathy (pinched nerve), carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is caused when pressure is placed on the median nerve, often by a repetitive motion, resulting in a pinched nerve in the palm of the hand. Although it is difficult to determine how many people have CTS, experts estimate it is about 3-6 percent of adults. That would mean about 9.3-18.7 million people in the U.S. suffer with CTS. Symptoms begin with tingling and numbness in the thumb, index, and middle fingers and aching or pain the hand. If left untreated, CTS can cause permanent nerve damage.
2 Tennis Elbow
Affecting about 1-3 percent of the population, tennis elbow describes pain and injury at the medial (center) or lateral (outside) side of the elbow caused by overuse of the arm, forearm, and hand muscles, as occurs when swinging a tennis racket. Although this repetitive strain injury affects a large number of regular tennis players, they constitute less than 5% of people diagnosed with tennis elbow. Frequent use of tools, such as a hammer, can also cause tennis elbow.
3 Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
The second most common peripheral nerve entrapment syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, occurs when the ulnar nerve is chronically irritated and compressed. This nerve passes under the elbow at the “funny bone” to the hand. Because it is close to the skin at the elbow, simply leaning on the elbow can irritate it. With enough pressure on the nerve, cubital tunnel syndrome develops, causing pain and tingling or numbness. Left untreated, wasting of muscles in the hand, loss of strength, and permanent nerve damage can occur.
4 Texting Thumb
Although a relatively new form of tendonitis, texting thumb is one of the most common repetitive strain injuries seen by hand doctors today. As you would expect, frequent typing on smartphones causes texting thumb. Although resting the thumbs and using physical therapy can help soothe the pain for many, more severe cases require surgical treatment.
5 Trigger Finger
Affecting the thumb and forefingers, trigger finger or trigger thumb is a painful condition in which the finger sticks in a bent position toward the palm of the hand and pops when straightening. In some cases, the finger or thumb catches in a bent position. This can happen when the tenosynovium, which is tissue surrounding the tendon, swells due to overuse, arthritis, or other problems. The tendon does not glide smoothly through pulleys as it should for full movement of the finger or thumb. Instead, the tenosynovium is squeezed through the pulley and pops out on the other side – or locks. Conservative treatments, such as splinting or taking anti-inflammatory medications, may provide relief for trigger finger. If not, an endoscopic surgical procedure can be performed to split the pulley and enable the tendon to glide freely.