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Saturday, 2 March, 2002, 01:11 GMT
The pain of RSI
As new guidelines on how to tackle repetitive strain injury are given to employers, BBC News Online's Christine McCarthy talks to those whose lives have been affected by this debilitating condition.

For hundreds of people in the UK, working on a computer keyboard has seriously damaged their health.

They are the victims of technological progress whose use of the computer has given them the painful reality of repetitive strain injury.

As if the crippling agony was not enough to bear, many sufferers have the uphill task of convincing their employers that the condition is for real.


Sometimes it can over a week for the pain to calm down

Vanita, RSI sufferer

There are almost half a million sufferers of RSI in the UK - many of these have conditions caused by computers.

Life-long condition

Vanita Wagjiani is a mother-of-two whose RSI condition has affected both her work and home life.

The 42-year-old finance assistant came down with the condition three years ago and has steadily felt the symptoms get worse.

"It gives me pains in my fingers, I lose my grip and have a burning sensation from the neck all the way down my arm.

"Sometimes it can take over a week for the pain to calm down," she said.

Causes of RSI
Repetitive actions combined with forceful movements
Cold temperatures
Vibration
Awkward posture
Same task performed over long periods of time

There are anti-inflammatory pills she can take and pain-killers to ease the discomfort, but Vanita has been told she will have the condition for life.

She uses a voice-activated unit at work instead of the keyboard, but says this can only assist with a limited number of tasks.

At home Vanita is now unable to join in the usual family activities with her two young children and cannot do simple tasks such as cutting vegetables.

And yet she is one of the lucky ones.

Doubts

Her employers have recognised her condition and are sympathetic. But her long term prospects are not good.

"My doctor has told me to quit my job and find another career, but after 11 years that's not easy," she said.

The condition causes swelling and spasms
RSI divides medical opinion

"I simply don't have any alternative at the moment. If I do anything else I want to retrain and do something which helps others to avoid RSI."

Prevention is the line taken by the Health and Safety Executive who last week launched a new initiative aimed at employers to treat RSI - or upper limb disorders - seriously.

That is not easy when there is doubt about what causes the condition.

Doctors have argued that the name is misleading because it is not caused by repetition, but persistent tension in the muscles.

A study two years ago at the University of Manchester, a team found RSI was not solely caused by physical action.

The team cited several other factors - including high levels of psychological distress and dissatisfaction with support from colleagues at work - which could prompt the condition.

HSE advice for employees with suspected RSI
Visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis
Tell your employer and obtain a work-based assessment (a legal requirement for employers)
If you have the condition confirmed seek proper treatment
The researchers argued that repetitive strain injuries are unlikely to be the result of a single cause.

But for people like Vanita, the cause is very real.

She said: "RSI is not a myth. We have to treat it seriously because so many people are too frightened of being sacked or down-graded they just suffer in silence."

Dispute

Pauline, a 36-year-old computer programmer is still struggling to have her pains recognised as RSI. Her doctor refers to it as "arm pains".

She has been working on computers since the early 1980s and began getting arm pains last summer.

She too is using a voice-activated computer at home but has been on sick leave from her job since November.


I expected to be working with computers all my life until I retire but now I'm having to think of a change of career - through necessity not choice

Pauline, RSI sufferer

A keen embroiderer she can no longer continue the hobby and cannot hold pens for any length of time.

Pauline is still in dispute with her employers over her injury but her future career will inevitably suffer, she says.

Guidelines

She said: "I expected to be working with computers all my life until I retire but now I'm having to think of a change of career - through necessity not choice."

The Health and Safety Executive has produced new guidelines on what it calls "work-based upper limb disorders".

They advise employers who have sufferers to take measures such as job-rotation and reducing the time spent on the repetitive task.

Employers should understand what causes RSI and ensure their workforce has had a work station assessment. Any modifications needed should be made to their working area.

RSI should matter for companies.

Up to 4.2m working days are lost in Britain each year through employees suffering upper limb disorders - costing employers at least 200m.

Doing nothing could also result in a costly court action - the highest payment made to an RSI sufferer was 250,000 to a bank worker.

But as Pauline says: "It's not the money we're after it's recognition, support and action to prevent it happening."

See also:

23 Feb 02 | Health
TUC warns of RSI risks
26 Dec 01 | Scotland
STUC accuses bosses over stress
15 Sep 00 | Health
RSI 'linked to psychology'
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