Injury Prevention & Treatment
Repetitive Stress Injuries: Beyond Carpal Tunnel
You’ve probably heard about carpal tunnel syndrome, the painful and debilitating condition that involves the wrist and typically results from computer overuse. However, as I found out, carpal tunnel is far from the only Repetitive Stress Injury, or RSI. In my case, the combination of doing my usual editing and writing work here at ThirdAge plus meeting a deadline for a book and transferring data manually from Entourage on an old computer to Outlook on a new computer brought on what turned out to be severe bursitis in my upper left arm under the deltoid muscle. I’m left-handed and my dominant arm was the one that really took a hit. Also, an MRI showed that I have a partial tear of the rotator cuff in my left shoulder that may have been caused by RSI as well. I have full range of motion, though, so I don’t need surgery. Hurray!
My doctor gave me a prescription for physical therapy but the therapist said the bursitis needed to “calm down” before I could begin doing strengthening exercises. I bought ergonomic armrests and a very cool pen-shaped ergonomic mouse. I also trained myself to mouse with my right hand, at least most of the time. Best of all, I downloaded an application called RSI Guard that forces me to take breaks by disabling my keyboard and mouse for three minutes every 20 minutes unless I manually shut it off when I’m right in the middle of something and really don’t want to stop. During the breaks, I stand up, stretch a little, and walk around. I’ve known for a long time that I ought to do this, not just to avoid RSI but as a benefit for my health in general, yet it took an injury to make me comply!
My case was actually pretty typical of a version of RSI called Upper Limb Disorder (ULD) but other body parts can be affected as well, depending on the activity that causes the stress. Not only that, but mental stress may exacerbate RSI. (For me, my cortisol levels probably shot up because of the very tight book deadline.)
Now here is a list of some of the most common types of RSI:
*Bursitis Bursae (singular bursa) are sacs filled with fluid. They cushion joints and help muscles and tendons glide easily. The suffix “itis” means inflammation. Anti-inflammatory OTC medications such as Advil and Aleve can help as long as you don’t overdo it. Cold packs, heated packs, and hot showers are good therapy as well.
*Carpal Tunnel Syndrome When the nerve in the wrist is compressed, blood can’t get to hands and fingers. This causes numbness and pain. My daughter had carpal tunnel during her freshman year in college. I used to cut her meat for her when we went out to eat! What really helped her, besides an ergonomic keyboard and chair, was a warm paraffin “bath”. My mother had used one for arthritis in her hands and I remembered that as soon as my daughter’s doctor recommended it.
*Iliotibial Band Syndrome, or Runner’s Knee This is a common overuse injury for runners. The ligament that goes down the outside of the thigh becomes tight and inflamed.
*Achilles TendinitisThis is an RSI that afflicts ballet dancers, especially those who dance on pointe. The tendon above the heel becomes inflamed so that doing a plié, the basic knee bending movement in ballet with the heel on the floor, becomes difficult. Running can also cause this condition.
*Heavy Baby Wrist I didn’t make that up! It’s a recognized syndrome. Warn your daughters and daughters-in-law. A young friend of mine who has twin babies ignored the wrist pain that gradually got worse as she lifted them over and over again. Now she’s scheduled for surgery to repair the damage. Grandma is going to come and stay for a while to help out!
*Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow Technically called epicondylitis, these conditions happen as a result of repeated bending and straightening of the arm. Other activities that can cause variations of epicondylitis are hammering, painting, raking, and even cooking.
*Texter’s Thumb People of all ages are beginning to complain about RSI that comes from “thumb typing” on smartphones. As with all forms of RSI, moderation and frequent breaks are the best medicine.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my own advice and stand up for a break. Live and learn.
Sondra Forsyth is Co-Editor-in-Chief of ThirdAge.com. She is a National Magazine Award winner with scores of major magazine bylines and twelve books to her credit. Her most recent book is “Candida Cleanse: The 21-Day Diet to Beat Yeast and Feel Your Best”. Sondra was Executive Editor at “Ladies’ Home Journal,” Features Editor at “Cosmopolitan,” and Articles Editor at “Bride’s.” A former ballerina, she founded Ballet Ambassadors, an arts-in-education company in New York City, and served as Artistic Director for 16 years.