Strain :: Physical activity associated with lower risk of work-related repetitive strain injury

Health benefits associated with physical activity during leisure time are widely recognized, but it is not known if leisure-time physical activity decreases the risk of work-related repetitive strain injury (RSI).

A new study published in the April 2007 issue of Arthritis Care & Research estimated the prevalence of work-related RSI and found that being physically active during leisure time is associated with a decreased risk of this type of injury.

Led by C.R. Ratzlaff, PhD(Cand), BSc(PT), FCAMT, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, researchers analyzed data from the 2003 Canadian Community Health Survey, a population-based national survey that provides detailed information on the type and amount of leisure-time physical activity in which respondents engaged. It included 58,622 full-time workers between the ages of 15 and 74. Respondents were included if they reported injuries due to repetitive strain that were serious enough to limit normal activities during the previous 12 months, and if these RSIs were in the upper body and associated with work-related activities. Physical activities were grouped into high upper-body load (tennis, baseball, weight training, gardening, fishing, golf, bowling, hockey, volleyball, swimming, home exercise, skiing, cycling) and low upper-body load (walking, dancing, exercise class/aerobics, ice skating, rollerblading, jogging, soccer).

The results showed that the prevalence of RSI in the overall survey population (134,072 individuals) in 2003 was approximately 10.9 percent, and the prevalence of RSIs due to work was about 4.7 percent. Upper-body injuries, the most common of which affected the wrist/hand, shoulder and elbow, accounted for over 63 percent of RSIs in full-time workers. Several factors were associated with upper-body work-related RSIs, including, physical work demands, work-related stress, obesity and daily smoking,. Women and those aged 30-49 were also at higher risk. While higher levels of physical activity may place increased load on the musculoskeletal system that could potentially contribute to RSI, the study found no such link. However, it did find that being physically active was protective against RSI, as was being over 50 years old.

“This finding provides evidence for a hypothesis that an active lifestyle outside of work may protect against work-related RSI, adding another potential health benefit to leisure-time physical-activity participation,” the authors state. They note that this type of activity may play a role in facilitating mechanical and metabolic processes in the musculoskeletal system that counter the repetitive or sedentary effects of many jobs. It may also offset muscle weakness in the upper body, and provide better balance of movement and muscle activity. It may be that those with RSIs are less likely to be active outside of work because of their injuries, however such injuries would not necessarily limit activities such as walking.

“Work-related RSI is a common problem that has significant costs in terms of lost wages and productivity, medical care, and quality of life,” the authors note, adding that it is a growing problem in Canada that may be associated with an increase in sedentary occupations and lifestyles. “It is important to identify lifestyle factors that may protect against RSI in order to inform employers, compensation boards, and the working population,” they conclude. “Identification of safe physical activities may reduce RSI and provide multiple other health benefits.”

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