A repetitive strain injury that affects the hands is usually associated with heavy computer use. Since computers are so common in the workplace today, this injury is known by many other names that reflect this trend, such as occupational overuse syndrome and work-related upper limb disorder. However, a repetitive strain injury can arise from other activities, such as playing a musical instrument or participating in sports. Fortunately, warming up and intermittent hand exercises can help to relieve symptoms.
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A repetitive strain injury means that damage has occurred to the locomotor and nervous systems that support and synchronize the movement of muscles. Collectively, these systems make up the musculoskeletal system, and include a network of muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as bone and the connective tissue and cartilage that join everything together. When repetitive, forced or awkward motions cause pressure or strain on any of these components, you may begin to experience pain and, over time, a limited range of movement.
The first and most obvious sign that a repetitive injury has occurred is localized pain. At first, you will most likely notice the pain while engaged in an activity. However, as time goes by, you may experience pain while at rest, often in severe and unexpected bursts. It’s also not uncommon to feel pain radiate up the arm from the hands or wrists. Sometimes, there is no pain at all. Instead, a tingling or numbing sensation might be felt, especially if the injury involves one or more nerves in a finger or thumb. The affected digit might even appear white or bluish when exposed to cold temperatures due to impaired blood flow.
Other common symptoms of repetitive strain injury in the hands include muscle weakness, persistently cold hands, having a tendency to drop things and experiencing difficulty performing simple tasks, like turning a doorknob or zippering a jacket.
Stretching the hands and fingers before starting an activity is essential. However, it’s just as important to take frequent breaks and repeat these exercises throughout the day. There are a variety of warm up exercises possible to perform, many of which are geared toward specific types of repetitive injuries. One simple exercise involves stretching each hand across the chest while reaching toward the opposite shoulder. Another good warm up is to stretch both arms out in front of you while flexing the wrists and fingers.
The staff of the Department of Rehabilitation Services at the Ohio State University Medical Center provides patients with a checklist of simple hand and finger exercises to perform each day. These simple but effective exercises include repeatedly crumbling a piece of paper into a ball, or positioning the hand as though hitchhiking and then extending the fingers straight.
According to the suggestions provided by HandExercise.org, hand-strengthening exercises can be enhanced with the use of a tennis ball, or the edge of a table. For instance, squeezing a tennis ball 8 to 10 times with each hand, or pushing “off” the edge of a surface with the palms of the hands for a few seconds helps to build strength in the hands.
If symptoms do not improve from performing hand exercises, ask your doctor to recommend a physical therapist. He or she is specially trained to instruct you on how to perform exercises that target your specific injury in a moderated setting.