What is a Repetitive Stress Injury? - Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Instructor: Nadine James

Nadine has taught nursing for 12 years and has a PhD in Nursing research

In this lesson you will learn about repetitive stress injury. Included will be the definition, symptoms, and a few types of these stress injuries. Also, the tests and treatments for the injury will be discussed.

Definition and Epidemiology

Have you ever known someone who plays tennis and has complained about their wrist hurting? Or someone who does a lot of typing at work complaining that their hand and arm hurts all the time? These injuries are probably due to a repetitive stress injury. This medical problem describes a broad range of injuries that occur with repetition in any part of the body. The injuries can also be known as overuse injuries. They are most commonly diagnosed in older adults. However, these injuries are becoming more common in younger children because of sports and heavy computer and video game usage.

For instance my granddaughter - we will call her Alisa - plays softball. Last week she was in terrible pain whenever she threw the ball. Of course we took her to the doctor and got a diagnosis: tendinitis of the elbow. Is there a cure or a medicine that can fix this injury? The answer is no. Only resting the tendon will stop the pain.

How prevalent are these types of injuries? Overuse injuries account for 30-50% of all sports injuries and 50% of work-related injuries.

Symptoms and Types

Unfortunately, these injuries are difficult to diagnose because the symptoms tend to be vague complaints of pain and tenderness. Patients may come to the doctor with complaints of numbness and tingling. Other symptoms may include instability of the cartilage or tendons causing deformities of the wrist, hand, and fingers.

There are two types of repetitive stress injuries. The first type are well-defined injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. With these injuries, the more you use the affected site, the worse the symptoms become. The most typical symptoms are swelling, inflammation, and nerve compression.

The second type of repetitive stress injury we will discuss are less specific with their symptoms. However, the symptoms appear to be more emergent to the person with the injury. A few symptoms seen in this group are deep aching pain, tingling and nerve pain.


The first test a doctor will perform is an assessment of the affected area. Most of the time the doctor will also perform an X-ray to make sure there are no broken bones. Other tests used to diagnose include Phalen's test and maneuver, Tinel's sign, Watson's Test, Finkelstein's Sign, and an elbow flexion stress test. All these tests are for the upper extremity and are non-invasive (meaning you do not have to make a wound in the body to complete the test).


Once diagnosed, the doctor will develop a treatment plan that is tailored to the individual and the type of injury. For lower back injuries, stretching and strengthening exercise may be encouraged to help tone the abdominal muscles. Why do you think it is important to have strong abdominal muscles? The answer is that the abdomen is the core component that supports the back. Healthy and strong abdominal muscles equal more support for the back.

The main treatment for these injuries -- especially to the upper extremities -- is to stop the repetitive movements. However, in the case of certain types of workers and athletes, this cannot be done. So for most of these injuries, the doctor will order alternating warm and cold packs to be applied to the site for 15-20 minutes at a time. Pharmacological treatments include the use of ibuprofen and naproxen. These medications help to reduce inflammation and pain.

Lesson Summary

Repetitive stress injury describes a broad range of injuries that occur with repetition of any part of the body. They are most commonly diagnosed in older adults but are also being diagnosed in children due to sports and heavy computer use.

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