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Repetitive strain injury

Diagnosis of strain injuries

Your doctor’s first step during an appointment for joint pain or other signs of a potential RSI will be to discuss your symptoms in detail, including when and where you first noticed discomfort. He or she will also likely ask what kinds of movements or activities provoke your symptoms or make them better, and about what, if any, at-home treatments you’ve tried.

If you have significant swelling or loss of range of motion, your doctor may also use other tools such as imaging tests (like x-rays, MRIs, or ultrasounds) to look for traumatic injuries like fractures, ligament tears, or dislocations.

In some cases, such as if your symptoms indicate a possible autoimmune condition like rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor might also use blood tests or tests of your joint fluid to complete your diagnosis.


Treatment and prevention of overuse injuries start with avoiding or taking time off from the repetitive activity that is causing pain in order to give your injury time to heal.

Your doctor’s first recommendation may be to find out precisely what is causing your symptoms.

If your RSI was caused by a sport or hobby, you might need to take a few days to a few weeks off. If it was due to activity at your workplace, you might need to take steps to modify the activity or speak with your employer.

In addition to resting, sometimes adding physical exercise to strengthen other muscle groups can help support your joints and prevent pain. Low-impact activities such as swimming are particularly helpful at easing the symptoms of an RSI by improving strength.

If these methods do not relieve your symptoms or aren’t possible, your doctor may recommend additional treatments. Anti-inflammatory medicines, including both over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs (such as Ibuprofen) and prescription options like corticosteroid injections, can relieve overuse injury symptoms.

Splinting or soft, supportive braces are often helpful, as are icing with a cold pack to reduce inflammation. For some types of repetitive strain injury, physical therapy also can help heal the injury. A physical therapist can teach you the correct body mechanics to protect the area in the future, as well as address any muscle imbalances and strengthen your muscles.

In rare cases, surgery is necessary to repair an injury to your muscles, tendons, ligaments, or bones. To learn more about surgery for RSIs, Find a Doctor near you. Dignity Health provides expert surgical and non-surgical care for a wide range of orthopedic conditions and injuries, including overuse injuries.

How to tell the difference between an overuse injury and normal soreness

After exercising, many people experience DOMS (or “delayed onset muscle soreness”) for 24-48 hours. DOMS usually occurs when you pushed your body beyond what is comfortable, especially if you haven’t been using those muscles for a while.

This kind of soreness is natural. Using muscles more than usual causes a buildup of lactic acid and tiny tears in the muscle fiber. If these tears are minor, they help your body create more strength as it heals. Resting in between exercise sessions will help your muscles recover and prevent overuse injuries.

In some cases, it can be difficult to distinguish between normal soreness and a developing overuse or acute injury.

DOMS typically causes muscles to feel tight and tender to the touch, especially during movement. You may also feel achey, or notice that your muscles feel weaker or burn during exercise.

In contrast, injuries caused by movement often cause sharp, acute pain. Irritation to your tendons can cause pain near one of your joints that is worse first thing in the morning.

When in doubt, it’s best to ask a doctor. In addition, seek medical care to rule out an injury if you:

  • Feel sudden pain during exercise
  • Notice swelling, bruising, or deformity
  • Have “point tenderness” (pain in only one spot)
  • Have reduced range of motion
  • Experience soreness or pain that doesn’t go away or continues to worsen four days after exercise

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.