The RSI Rat Race

Repetitive Strain Injury, otherwise known as RSI, is an insidious problem in the workplace, and one about which there are many myths. Two such myths are the suggestions that RSI takes years to develop and only affects very specific areas of the body in limited ways. Mary Barbe, Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia, USA, has been steadily de-bunking these myths for the last ten years, and replacing them with hard facts. In a keynote speech to the 2012 Fascia Congress in Vancouver (which I attended), she presented some of her latest research findings.

The research was conducted with the help of the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, USA. Researchers studied three groups of rats over 12 weeks, giving them repetitive tasks to do for just half an hour at a time, for a total of two hours a day, 3 days per week. The rats were required to pull a lever to release a morsel of food. What differed was the work rate and the force required to pull the lever.

From only week 6 researchers noticed significant changes in the rats’ anatomy and physiology including:
• An increase in collagen (a protein which gives fascia strength, but also rigidity)
• An increase in fibroblasts (the cells that build more body tissue)
• Disorganisation of muscles and connective tissue (tangles and stuckness in muscles and fascia)
• Thickening of the tendon sheaths that should aid smooth movement
• An increase in central nervous system pain (ie learned pain)

While some of these changes coincided with an increase in task-related skills, there were declines in actual performance across the board by week 9, as the rats begun to experience systemic pain, extending throughout their bodies right down into their tails. At the height of their pain the rats became less sociable and were increasingly aggressive.

A small group were given Ibuprofen from week 5 to see if that helped and there was some difference up until week 9, due to the anti-inflammatory effect of the drug. After week 9 Ibuprofen no longer helped. Meanwhile other rats opted to stop work and rest, and they began to get better.

Something to ponder next time you skip your break and pop a pill to keep up with the rat race.

Here’s a link to a summary of the research http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22087754?dopt=Abstract.


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