At the recent International Symposium on Global Rehabilitation Trends in Toronto, speakers addressed the unique challenges facing the treatment of a group of disorders known as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). Although it is recognized that RSI has become alarmingly common in North America, research has been slow and the efficacy of treatments has been questionable. Why? The problem is easy to identify but difficult to resolve. RSI encompasses a large group of disorders – a group that is not clearly defined. To further confuse the matter, RSI also goes by many names. Overall, the problem can be described as uncertainty about the cause, treatment, and even name of the RSI disorders.
The term “RSI” can refer to one of many disorders of the muscles, tendons or nerves of the upper limb that are caused by repeated strain or movement. It includes well-known conditions such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as other conditions of the upper limb characterized by pain, altered sensation, swelling and circulatory change. Currently, its treatment is divided into four steps – symptom treatment, appropriate change of work conditions, gradual return to work, and treatment of related social or psychological issues. Patients generally choose from five types of symptom treatment: medical, surgical, physical, psychological, or alternative therapies.
Despite the wide range of treatments, there is a severe lack of research regarding their efficacy. The first step towards identifying the best treatment may seem trivial, but is both challenging and important. RSI must be clearly defined and a universal name for it must be chosen. Right now, it goes by a plethora of names such as cumulative trauma disorders (USA), occupational overuse syndrome (Australia), and work-related musculoskeletal disorders, among others. As a result, international reviews and comparisons of research are difficult. Regardless of its importance, naming is proving to be difficult for two reasons. Firstly, it is feared that officially naming a disorder will ostracize its patients and reinforce their disabilities. Secondly, all the names oversimplify the disorders and give misleading impressions – an inevitable problem when choosing an umbrella name for a diverse group of disorders.
All in all, it is easy for an onlooker to say that a universal name must be chosen for RSI. Only then can research proceed most efficiently. However, scientists still face many challenges before taking this first step towards identifying a treatment that will reduce the pains of RSI and improve the lives of many Canadians.