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Cumulative Trauma Disorder (and How to Prevent It)

15 July 2019

Anyone is at risk of developing cumulative trauma disorder (CTD), also known as repetitive strain injury. CTD is caused by repeating the same movements, leading to damage and inflammation of soft tissues like muscles, nerves and tendons. Many cases of CTD are from bad posture or poor exercise technique, so prevention is imperative for leading a healthy lifestyle.

Repetitive Stress Injury Symptoms and Causes

CTD is frequently related to upper body pain in the arms, shoulders, back or hands. Symptoms include:

  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Weakness or loss of mobility in muscles or joints

Examples of CTD include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Cubital tunnel syndrome
  • Trigger finger
  • Tennis or golfer's elbow
  • Some rotator cuff injuries
  • Soft tissue rheumatic syndromes (bursitis, tendinitis)

Carpal tunnel provides a good example of how repetitive strain injuries work. Surprisingly, typing isn't always the cause of carpal tunnel pain. Sometimes you can develop carpal tunnel from sleeping positions or from poor technique while playing tennis, golf or biking. Not taking enough breaks during activities, or lack of training or proper equipment, can also contribute.

Essentially, any work activity, hobby or sport that includes repetitive motions of the same joints or muscles can lead to a repetitive strain injury. Sometimes it's caused by trauma, but poor form over a long period of time can also contribute.

Cumulative Trauma Disorder Prevention

It's tough to quantify how much is too much when it comes to cumulative trauma disorder prevention. If you start feeling pain that might be caused by a CTD, you should take time off until the pain subsides. Trying to work through a CTD will typically only make it worse. You should also take frequent breaks. Many overuse injuries can be prevented before they become a problem.

Sometimes CTD is caused by having poor form or technique. For example, swimming with poor form might cause an overuse injury of the shoulder or knee. If you're starting to feel pain, you might want to watch videos on proper technique for your sport or exercise. You may also want to consult with a coach or personal trainer who can help correct your form. Checking your daily posture is also important, because poor posture alone might lead to a repetitive strain injury.

If you're feeling shoulder pain, try limiting participation in sports that require overhead reaching and focus on your posture. If you have elbow pain, observe if you're clenching your fists a lot, try not to lean on your elbows and consider wearing a forearm band during activities like tennis. If you're feeling wrist or hand pain, take frequent breaks while typing, try using tools with larger handles or foam grips and wear a splint when you sleep and during prolonged activities that use your wrist.

Treatment and When to See a Doctor

Treatment for repetitive strain injury can vary. You can start out by trying ice packs and then alternate with heat. Sometimes rest is all you need. Massage, gentle water therapy, chiropractor visits and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen may be helpful. If your pain persists, see a doctor. Your doctor may recommend an exercise regimen or physical therapy program to strengthen the injured area and surrounding muscles. You may need a splint or brace to give the injury rest or, in rare cases, surgery.

Good cumulative trauma disorder prevention comes down to listening to your body. Don't ignore pain that doesn't go away a day or two after exercising. Take breaks and rest the injured joints or muscles. Seek advice on proper form. And remember: It's better to see your doctor and find out nothing is wrong than to wait too long and make the injury worse.