The term “repetitive strain injuries” (or “RSI”) is a medical phrase which encompasses a number of musculoskeletal disorders affecting the soft tissues of the upper limbs and neck. It is most commonly caused by the sufferer engaging in repetitive movements that cause the inflammation of the tendons in these areas of the body. Amongst the disorders regularly categorised as repetitive strain injuries are bursitis, writer´s cramp, tennis elbow, and tendonitis.

Although repetitive strain injuries have been historically linked with repetitive office tasks such as typing and data entry, some forms of repetitive strain injuries can be specifically attributed to working in manufacturing, on an assembly line or in any job where a regular and significant amount of carrying above shoulder height is required. A common repetitive strain injury in manufacturing is “White Finger”, which is caused more by constantly vibrating tools and machinery rather than the actions of the user.

Repetitive strain injuries are classified as industrial diseases when initiated by the work environment, the task design or the equipment available to perform the task. Under regulations within the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act (2007), employers have a legal obligation to perform a risk assessment of any job within the workplace and the capability of the employee to perform that task without risk of injury, or with adequate training and protection to ensure the task is performed safely.

Causes of Repetitive Strain Injuries

Repetitive strain injuries are most frequently caused by the overuse of muscles, tendons and ligaments on a continued, repetitive basis, but can be aggravated by a number of factors. One of the most common is failing to take frequent breaks when performing a repetitive task, and others include using vibrating machinery, working in a cold environment, performing the repetitive tasks when tired or stressed or maintaining a poor posture in a badly organised work area that is not ergonomically sound.

Research has shown that employees suffering from depression and anxiety may also develop symptoms of repetitive strain injuries due to the demands of their job (or lack of them), poor support from colleagues and dissatisfaction with their work. One of the problems of fully understanding the psychological and psychosomatic factors is that a number of repetitive strain injuries are “non-anatomical” – meaning that the physical symptoms are not apparent under medical investigation.

The science of ergonomics promotes safe working practices by considering the activity being done, the demands on the user and the equipment being used for the task. It also requires an employer to plan, manage and control the prioritisation of tasks and the intensity of work, and to implement a proactive ergonomic work environment with the assistance of an occupational health advisor, rather than adopt a reactive approach when the workplace becomes a negative issue.

Symptoms of Repetitive Strain Injuries

Repetitive strain injuries are not conditions which develop overnight. They manifest over a long period of time and those with a higher risk factor of acquiring repetitive strain injuries include the elderly, those who have an existing health condition and those who are unfit. Studies have shown that women are more susceptible to repetitive strain injuries than men, and the severity of repetitive strain injuries may depend on ones emotions, the activity one is involved in and the weather.

Typical symptoms of repetitive strain injuries vary according to the activity which has caused the condition, but most commonly the sufferer will experience an underlying ache in the arm, shoulder or neck before the ache develops into pain. Many sufferers of repetitive strain injuries report numbness in the hands and loss of feeling in the fingers, whilst others comment on a tingling sensation similar to constant pins and needles. Poor sleep patterns and general fatigue are also common.

In the case of chronic repetitive strain injuries, the pains that are experienced will get steadily worse until the sufferer can no longer perform the activity that created the condition in the first place. This is particularly worrying for someone who relies on their occupation to support a family, as chronic repetitive strain injuries can take months of treatment to reach a pain-free state. In the severest of cases, permanent damage can be done preventing the sufferer from ever returning to their occupation.

Diagnosing Repetitive Strain Injuries

If you experience any of the symptoms relating to repetitive strains injuries, you should ensure that you seek swift medical attention. Rest alone is insufficient, even at the early stages, and if you choose to ignore the warning signs your repetitive strain injuries will develop into a more painful condition. Your doctor is the best person to advise you on what action you should take to alleviate the pain and prevent a reoccurrence, and will diagnose your repetitive strain injuries in one of two ways:

Type 1 repetitive strain injuries are when a doctor can diagnose a recognised medical condition, such as bursitis, writer´s cramp (dystonia), tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) and tendonitis. This is done by a series of tests to quantify the tightness of your muscles, registering any swelling or inflammation of the tendons and measuring the strength of your grip. In cases where a more specialised opinion may be required, your doctor may refer you to a rheumatology consultant.

Type 2 repetitive strain injuries are when a doctor cannot diagnose a medical condition from the symptoms. This may be because the symptoms do not fit into a pre-defined condition, or no symptoms are physically discernible. These types of non-measureable repetitive strain injuries are known as “diffuse RSI” or “non-specific pain syndromes” and cover any condition for which there is no tangible explanation or which is attributed to psychological factors.

Treating Repetitive Strain Injuries

Your doctor will recommend one of a number of possible treatments, depending on the type of repetitive strain injury that you are suffering from. This may include anti-inflammatory painkillers, cortisone injections or simple exercises. He will recommend that you stop performing the tasks which are causing the symptoms and look into practical ways of adjusting your work set-up so as to reduce strain on the affected tissues.

Your doctor might refer you to a physiotherapist who will be able to give you advice with posture and how to strengthen or relax the muscles involved. Or he could recommend that you see a chiropractor or osteopath, depending on how your symptoms manifest. Where chronic repetitive strain injuries are diagnosed, it may be necessary to undergo surgery. This again will depend on the type of repetitive strain injuries you are diagnosed with and is usually only an out-patients procedure.

One recommendation that your doctor will definitely make is to change your work practices to prevent a reoccurrence. This may involve re-positioning your seat on the assembly line, having your employer invest in an ergonomically styled keyboard or taking sufficient breaks to give your muscles adequate time to recover from their repetitive actions. Your employer can also make other improvements to your work environment – particularly in relation to reducing stress.

Compensation Claims for Repetitive Strain Injuries

If your doctor has diagnosed you with either type of repetitive strain injury and attributed it directly to your work environment, you may be able to claim compensation for your repetitive strain injuries. If it can be proven that your employer has contributed to your injuries by a lack of care or simple negligence, you are able to claim for the physical trauma you have suffered, plus any out of pocket expenses incurred by visiting medical specialists and therapists.

Your employer´s negligence may not only be attributable to a lack of planning and risk assessment but also in the non- provision of ergonomically designed equipment – or training on how to use equipment safely. Repetitive Strain Injuries are classified as industrial diseases in the same way as if you had been poisoned whilst working unprotected with a toxic substance: employers are equally as liable for repetitive strain injuries when they fail to eliminate any risks to their workforce.

Fortunately, many people suffering from repetitive strain injuries have their conditions treated in good time, and are able to return to work soon after – making just a few small adjustments to their work environment to prevent the condition reoccurring. If you are one of the unfortunate ones who has developed a work-related chronic repetitive strain injury that may require a long healing process and considerable time away from work, it is in your best interests to speak with a solicitor about claiming compensation.

Summary

  • Repetitive strain injuries are ailments which usually affect the upper limbs, shoulders and neck, and which are caused by repetitive movements inflaming the tendons.
  • Repetitive strain injuries are acquired over a period of time, and usually start with a permanent ache before developing into a severe pain which can disable the affected area.
  • There are two possible types of repetitive strain injuries: your doctor will administer painkillers, cortisone injections and recommend exercises to assist with healing.
  • When acquired in the work place, repetitive strain injuries are classified as industrial diseases and your doctor will insist that you cease from performing the task which causes the injury.
  • You can claim compensation for repetitive strain injuries against your employer if he has failed to provide a safe working environment.
  • This is always best done with the assistance of an experienced solicitor to prevent your claim for repetitive strain injuries compensation provoking an awkward workplace confrontation with your employer.

Special Disclaimer

This article should not be taken as medical advice – you should always see a doctor as soon as possible. The information in this article is only to provide a broad understanding of the topic and is not in any way complete. Due to the rapidly changing nature of medical research regarding repetitive strain injury symptoms and treatment, the Legal Advice Ireland can not be held responsible for the reliability, accuracy, timeliness, usefulness, and completeness of the content. You should never ignore medical advice from a doctor. You should never self-manage any health problems. You should always see a doctor as soon as possible if you have any repetitive strain injury symptoms.