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Pain is a sign of repetitive stress disorder (3/23/98)

Warning! If your work requires you to stay in one position all day, you could develop repetitive stress disorder.

According to Ann Newstead, assistant professor of physical therapy at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, it's a fairly common problem in today's work force, especially if what we do centers around sitting or standing for eight hours and doing the same motion repeatedly.

Repetitive stress injury (RSI) is a disease of the musculoskeletal system, caused by a gradual build-up of tiny amounts of damage to the muscles and nerves. The damage occurs on a daily basis when the same intensive repetitive motion, as on computer keyboards, is done without a change in body position.

"Basically, RSI symptoms include numbness, tingling and weakness in one or more extremities. They can also include headaches or jaw pain," says Newstead.

But for many with RSI, there are no obvious tell-tale signs of injury or swelling, meaning the pain often gets ignored. "Pain means something," says Newstead. "Listen to your body because something is wrong. Work shouldn't hurt."

Women are more prone to develop RSI than men, she says. Why? Women experience hormonal changes during pregnancy, menopause and following hysterectomy which increases their bio-mechanical vulnerability, the physical therapist said. These hormonal changes can lead to fluid retention, which cuts down on blood flow to tissues and can change the collagen (connective tissue) which holds the tendons together.

A big risk factor for RSI is forward head posture, better known as slouching. This position causes the head to be carried by the neck instead of the spine, increasing the weight of the head on the neck by 300 percent. The rounding forward of the shoulders causes a stretch weakness of the posture muscles of the upper back, all the while holding the head upright. The load on these muscles is significantly increased while their strength is drastically reduced. This can lead to several chronic muscle problems in the upper back.

Another important risk factor that is frequently overlooked is lack of upper extremity support. Countless jobs call for arms being held up slightly all day, fighting gravity. This is taxing work for the neck and shoulder muscles and exacerbates the existing stresses from forward head posture.

"The cure is preventive measures," says Newstead. About every 10 or 15 seconds, do something different - change positions. The human body was not meant to sit all day doing the same movement. Also change your work environment so your body is in a balanced position."

Roughly half a million Americans reported suffering RSI in 1995.

Contact: Myong Covert (210) 567-2570