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How to Prevent and Treat Repetitive Strain Injuries

A collage of activities related to repetitive stress injuries

Repetitive motions over a long period of time can lead to pain, swelling or weakness in your fingers, wrist, elbow or shoulder. This may be a sign of an overuse syndrome.

Overuse syndromes – also known as repetitive strain or repetitive stress injuries – are caused by cumulative stress on joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles from repeated motions. You can develop overuse disorders from swinging a hammer or a tennis racquet, working at a computer or playing a musical instrument.

“You might be keyboarding all day or doing repetitive work or chasing after children,” says University Hospitals occupational therapist Marilyn Mueller, OT. “There can be a lot of reasons you have repetitive use injuries.”

Mueller specializes in upper extremity issues, which are common overuse injuries because repetitive motions tend to involve hands and arms. She shares common injuries and tips for treatment and prevention.

Shoulder Injuries

Sleeping on your stomach with the arm raised towards the head is the main contributing factor to shoulder problems, Mueller says. “Once your shoulder begins to hurt, avoid that posture during sleep or laying on your injured side.”

  • Rotator cuff pain is on the side and/or back of your shoulder. The rotator cuff are tendons and muscles that hold your shoulder in the socket.
  • Impingement pain is at the front of your shoulder and can radiate to the side and down your arm. Impingement occurs when a rotator cuff muscle is pinched between the shoulder blade and head of the upper arm bone.
  • Frozen Shoulder is a stiff and often painful shoulder that may occur due to prolonged immobility from a fracture of the shoulder or arm or lack of use.

Elbow Injuries

  • Tennis Elbow is an inflammation of the tendons that join the muscles of the forearm to the outside of the elbow. Tennis elbow pain spreads from your elbow to your forearm or wrist when you use your hand to grasp or rotate your wrist.
  • Golfer’s Elbow is similar to tennis elbow except that is occurs on the inside of the elbow.

Wrist Injuries

  • Flexor Carpi Ulnaris Tendonitis is inflammation of the wrist flexor tendon that runs from the elbow to the pinky side of the wrist. Pain occurs especially when flexing or rotating the wrist.
  • Flexor Carpi Radialis Tendonitis is inflammation that occurs on the thumb side of the wrist.

Hand Injuries

  • Thumb Arthritis occurs when the cartilage wears away at the thumb joint, causing pain at the base of the thumb when you grab or grip an object.
  • Thumb Tendonitis, also called De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, is the swelling of tendons on the thumb side of wrist, causing pain at the base of the thumb and inside of the wrist.
  • Trigger Thumb and Trigger Finger are conditions involving the tendons that flex the fingers and thumb. You may feel locking, stiffness or pain when you bend them.

How to Treat Overuse Injuries

“With all overuse injuries, you want to take care of yourself. You want to have a good diet, good hydration,” Mueller says. She also recommends the following strategies for overuse injuries:
  • Conservative treatment such as activity modifications, heat, ice and pain relievers often help.
  • Topical pain relief products such as Ben Gay, Biofreeze or similar menthol-based products.
  • CBD products and essential oils such as lavender, frankincense and peppermint also may help reduce soreness.
  • Injections of corticosteroids or other medications in some cases.
  • Physical therapy or occupational therapy, including exercises to do at home.

Many common overuse injuries occur because of repetitive movements during the workday. “You want to have a good work-life balance. Look at your workspace, make sure it’s ergonomic to your body.”

  • Build stretch periods into your workday.
  • Create micro-breaks in your workday. For example, take short walks to refill your water bottle.
  • Create an organized desk environment, with items frequently used closest to your reach.
  • Minimize stress in your work environment with outdoor light, aromatic plant life (rosemary or lavender), and motivating or calming music.
  • Maintain good musculoskeletal health and consider soft tissue massages on a regular basis.

Related Links

The highly trained rehabilitation specialists at University Hospitals help people of all ages regain independence, function and confidence after an illness or injury. Learn more about Rehabilitation Services at University Hospitals.