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Repetitive Stress Disorders

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

In his book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession, neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin discusses the process of becoming an expert at something. Truly accomplished people exist in every field (sports, music, art, science, etc). But what does it take to become an expert? Talent – surely. Opportunity – maybe initially. Dedication and hard work – now that’s the real issue. According to the scientific studies cited by Levitin, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something (roughly three hours of practice every day for ten years). That’s 10,000 hours of doing the same activity, whether playing chess, writing poetry, or playing piano. It kind of makes you wonder whether Mozart had a repetitive stress disorder.

Repetitive stress disorder (RSD) is a blanket term for a host of conditions that occur when an action is performed so repetitively without rest that the body part involved becomes injured. This long-term stress and prolonged activity causes pain, stiffness, weakness, tingling, and/or numbness in the affected areas. While any part of the body can suffer a RSD, they most often occur in joints, such as the hands, elbows, shoulders, neck, and knees. Anyone can develop a RSD, but most at risk are those who engage in jobs or hobbies that require excessive repetitive motion (such as assembly line workers, gardeners, painters, musicians, chefs, long-distance runners, golfers, tennis players, volleyball players, baseball and softball pitchers, and those who work with computers).

Repetitive stress disorders come in many varieties. Carpal tunnel syndrome (where the nerves running through the wrist become pinched), stress fractures (minute breaks in a bone due to prolonged stress), patellofemoral syndrome and chrondromalacia patella (types of degeneration in the knee due to overuse), tendonitis (where the tendons become sore and inflamed), impingement syndrome (where the shoulder tendons become pinched), shin splints (pain in the lower part of the leg, usually due to overuse), golfers’ elbow and tennis elbow (tendonitis of the elbow), bursitis (inflammation of the bursa, the fluid sac that cushions bones), and de Quervain’s tenosynovitis (inflammation of the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist) are all examples of RSDs.

Because repetitive stress disorders rarely go away by themselves, almost always getting worse with time (and in rare cases requiring surgery), it’s important to know how to treat them. The first step is to stop the offending activity. RSDs must be rested so the injury has time to heal. You’ll have to make changes to your work responsibilities, exercise schedule, or skip out on your favorite hobby. This might seem like asking a lot, but without the chance to heal, your RSD will not improve. If total rest isn’t an option, try modifying the activity – use support braces on the computer, switch to non-weight bearing exercise, and re-evaluate form and posture to insure you’re doing the activity correctly.

While you’re resting your repetitive stress disorder, reducing inflammation and controlling pain are the next steps towards healing. Gentle stretching, heat and ice therapy, and over-the-counter pain medications (if approved by your doctor) will accomplish this. But in the end, patience is the most important aspect of getting over a RSD. Healing takes time; in general, the longer you’ve had the RSD, the longer it will take to recover.

Considering the pain and frustration that often accompany a repetitive stress disorder, it’s important to learn how to prevent it from reoccurring (or prevent one from developing in the first place). When performing repetitive motions, take frequent breaks to rest and stretch, always use correct posture and proper form, modify the activity if possible, and stop the moment pain begins. See your physical therapist right away to lessen recovery time.

Even if we’re not as good at piano as Mozart, we can still fall victim to a repetitive stress disorder, but rest, activity modification, and early treatment will have you back on the path to expertise in no time.

Don’t let overuse injuries hold you back. Call 463-00221 today for your FREE Pain Assessment!

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