Workplace injuries are often associated with a single, life-altering incident, such as an engine explosion or a fall from a roof. In fact, however, a large proportion of work-related injuries develop over time from the cumulative effect of repetitive movements or postures on the job—from keyboarding to scanning groceries, from hammering nails to holding a jackhammer.
Fortunately, employees may get workers' compensation benefits for repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), as long as they can show that their work duties were to blame.
Under state workers' comp systems, RSIs go by different names, such as overuse injuries, repetitive stress injuries, or cumulative trauma (a larger category that includes other injuries that develop over time, like hearing loss from repeated exposure to loud sounds). Whatever the name, RSIs include many different conditions, including carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tendonitis, trigger finger, rotator cuff syndrome, epicondylitis (often called tennis elbow), lower back pain, and more.
An RSI may involve any or all of several different symptoms in the affected part of your body, including:
In the early stages, you may not notice any symptoms, or you may experience them only when you're doing a particular motion or holding a particular posture. Without treatment, you may eventually experience the pain, weakness, and other symptoms all the time—even after rest—leaving you unable to do your job or even perform simple actions needed for your daily life.
Most people associate RSIs with working at a computer. Given how many jobs regularly require using a keyboard, mouse, and/or touchscreen, it's no surprise that computer-related cumulative injuries to the hands, wrists, and arms are widespread.
But RSIs can develop from a wide range of other job tasks that require repeated micro-movements, frequent lifting and carrying, using vibrating equipment, or holding awkward postures. In addition to the many occupations that involve computer use, other high-risk jobs for RSIs include:
It's important to pay attention to the warning signs of an RSI so that it can be caught early on. If you think that your symptoms are related to your job, notify your employer immediately.
You should also see a doctor as soon as possible (though you'll have to follow the rules in your state's workers' comp system for seeking medical treatment for a work-related injury). "Toughing it out" or waiting to get care could not only hinder your recovery, but it might also make it more difficult to get workers' comp benefits.
Be sure to tell the doctor what you were doing when you experienced symptoms, as well as the time of day. The treating physician might say that you need to stop working for a while or work shorter hours to allow your RSI to get better.
The doctor may also prescribe work restrictions, such as frequent breaks, time limits on how long you should do certain tasks, or ergonomic adjustments to your work station or equipment.
Treatment options vary depending on the type of RSI and its severity. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome can be treated with simple rest, wrist supports, medication, or surgery known as a carpal tunnel release.
Depending on the laws in your state, you or your employer will need to file a claim in order to start your worker's comp case officially. RSIs are generally covered under workers' compensation, but a few states set special limits on cumulative injuries or require employees to meet higher standards for proving their RSIs were caused by work duties rather than other activities in their life.
In Arkansas, for example, if an injury wasn't related to a specific incident, it's only covered if it's caused by "rapid repetitive motion" or if it involves the back, neck, or hearing loss (Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-102(4)(A)(ii) (2022)).
Each state has its own deadline for filing workers' comp claims; in the case of cumulative injuries, the time period generally starts when you first experienced some disability (such as missing work or needing medical care) and you knew or should've known that it was caused by your work. (See our state-specific articles on filing workers' comp claims for details on the procedures and deadlines in your state.)
If your employer's insurer balks at paying for your medical care or denies your claim, it would be a good idea to speak with an experienced workers' comp lawyer.
RSIs can be expensive for insurance companies. These injuries resulted in the longest absences from work (among the most common workplace injuries) during several years in early 2000s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So insurers often do everything they can to avoid paying benefits.
A skilled and experienced attorney can tilt the scales in your favor by developing the proper medical evidence to support your claim. (Learn more about what a good workers' comp lawyer should do for you.)