Repetitive strain injury is a term used to refer to pain in muscles, joints and tendons as a result of repetitive overuse of the parts of the body in question. Repetitive strain injury mostly affects the upper body, specifically the elbows, wrists, hands, neck and shoulders. About 2% of the UK population have repetitive strain injury, but this statistic is much higher in certain professions, such as dressmaking.
What are the signs and symptoms of repetitive strain injury?
Repetitive strain injury is characterised by pain in the body, of various natures. It develops over time and use. The types of (pain) sensation associated with repetitive strain injury include:
- Aching and tenderness
- Tingling and numbness
Without treatment, repetitive strain injury may cause swelling in the part of the body suffering from overuse and the pain may become constant.
How is repetitive strain injury diagnosed and treated?
The first stage in treating repetitive strain injury is to alter the tasks and activities which are causing the symptoms. This includes avoiding situations which may exacerbate the condition, such as using vibrating equipment, working in cold temperatures and stress.
A GP may suggest taking painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, or using heat packs or supports for wrists, hands, etc.
Physiotherapy can also help someone with the condition manage it, advising them how to improve posture, strengthen and relax muscles affected by symptoms.
Prevention is generally preferable to treating repetitive strain injury once it develops. This can be achieved by sitting at a desk with good posture and taking breaks from lengthy, repetitive tasks.
There are a few ways to confirm what sort of reasonable adjustments should be made for an employee with repetitive strain injury:
An employer can ask questions regarding the nature of an employee’s repetitive strain injury and what extra support they may need can be broached sensitively. For example:
- Have they required adjustments in the past? For example, avoiding certain types of manual tasks which might exacerbate their symptoms.
- Encouraging the employee to express their strengths and interests and which tasks they might enjoy doing is a positive way of adapting to their needs.
- Employers should be aware of the risk factors for repetitive strain injury in their workplace and encourage all employees to inform them of symptoms as soon as they start to develop.
- Employers should complete a Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessment for those using computers or sat at a desk.
What reasonable adjustments are possible for employees with repetitive strain injury?
Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with repetitive strain injury if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has repetitive strain injury. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.
If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of repetitive strain injury:
- Flexible return-to-work policy to accommodate an employee who may need to take time off as a result of their repetitive strain injury.
- Allowance for regular breaks to reduce the impact on parts of the body susceptible to repetitive strain injury, including time to break if the employee is taking pain medication for their condition which may affect their concentration, etc.
- Adjustments to duties depending on the severity of their symptoms, which may be variable and improve or deteriorate from one week to the next. This may also be dependent on when they take their medication if they are required to operate machinery, for example.
- Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s repetitive strain injury and are aware of what they can do to avoid developing repetitive strain injury themselves.
- Ergonomic equipment to reduce pressure on the back, neck, forearms, wrists and other susceptible parts of the body while sitting at a desk. Guidance should also be made available on posture tips so that workstations are as optimised for preventing repetitive strain injury as possible.
Repetitive strain injury Signposting
RSI Action – organisation working to prevent repetitive strain injury in the UK and to improve the treatment of those with the condition, including in a work environment, as well as to raise awareness of the growing number of students and young people with the condition.
Chartered Society of Physiotherapists – the professional, educational and trade union body for the UK’s chartered physiotherapists. A source of advice and guidance on prevention and treatment of musculoskeletal conditions, including repetitive strain injury (020 7306 6666).