Physical Therapy for Work Injuries:

Repetitive Stress & Trauma

Although job injuries are very common, the good news is that there are proven techniques and treatments that will lead to recovery. Physical therapy can help patients heal from workplace injuries and learn how to prevent them from recurring.

The most common workplace injuries result from repetitive stress or cumulative trauma to the body. These conditions, which account for nearly two-thirds of all injuries at work, develop over time when repetitive motion places excessive and continual stress on a body part. These injuries can lead to painful muscle strains, inflammation, swelling and sometimes tissue damage.

Repetitive stress is an injury of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. Causes of repetitive stress include forceful exertions, vibrations, compression or sustained or awkward positions.

Repetitive stress injuries usually affect the upper extremities of the body – arms, wrists, hands, neck and shoulders – but also may affect other areas, such as the back or knees. If not treated promptly and effectively, repetitive stress and trauma can cause permanent injury.

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Swelling, redness and tenderness
  • Loss of strength
  • Decrease in range of motion

The most common repetitive stress and trauma workplace injuries include:

Carpal tunnel syndrome. This condition affects a nerve traveling through the carpal tunnel, a pathway connecting the forearm to the palm. Carpal tunnel syndrome often results from too much time at a computer keyboard, coupled with poor posture and improper computer workstation ergonomics (the study of designing equipment and devices to fit the human body). The end result is a compressed wrist, sometimes leading to pain, numbness, tingling and partial loss of motor control.

Tendonitis. This injury often occurs when excessive repetitive movement leads to inflammation of a tendon, a fibrous band of tissue that connects muscle to bone. Tendonitis can affect workers whose job duties involve repetitive motion, such as constant lifting, pushing, pulling, squatting, or even turning of the head. Often this can result in lower back or shoulder injuries.

Trigger finger. More workers are encountering this injury these days, caused by an inflammation of tissue in the finger or thumb due to overuse. It is sometimes linked repeated use of a tool, such as a drill or wrench. Arthritis or an injury to the palm of the hand can also cause trigger finger. Cervical radiculopathy. Patients who hold a phone between their neck and shoulders for prolonged periods can develop this condition caused by the compression of discs in the neck.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

Without proper care, repetitive stress injuries and trauma can continue for years, worsening over time and eventually lead to surgery or disability. Physical therapy offers a non-invasive, healthy, and what’s often called an “organic” course of treatment.

A physical therapist takes a two-prong approach: treatment and prevention.

Therapy techniques may include:

  • Rest of the affected area
  • Splinting
  • Stretching routines
  • Strengthening exercises, often with squeezing and gripping devices
  • Hot and cold contrast baths
  • Ultrasound
  • Massage

In addition, therapists determine the source of the stress injury. This provides information to devise and train patients in alternative work techniques and procedures, including ergonomic changes, adaptive hardware and different routines to minimize the underlying cause of the stress. The therapist’s goal is to prevent recurrence.