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“Repetitive strain injury,” or RSI, is an umbrella-term encompassing an assortment of maladies related to performing the same physical motions over and over again.
So the pain you feel after lifting a bunch of heavy boxes when moving from one home to another, or the ache in your back and neck after a long roadtrip spent hunched over a steering wheel? RSI symptoms.
For a long while, this term was most commonly used in reference to injuries faced by folks working on assembly lines and in slaughter houses—a blue-collar sort of problem.
But in the mid-1990s, a surge of cases—a ten-fold increase over the previous decade—were reported by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of them found in white-collar work environments.
Carpal tunnel syndrome refers to a type of median neuropathy experienced in the carpal tunnel—“median neuropathy” meaning “pain, weakness, and a burning or prickling sensation,” and the “carpal tunnel” being a canal-like passage that connects the forearm to the hand and contains tendons and the median nerve (which is one of the five primary nerves connected to the brachial plexus, which is a network of nerves extending from the spinal cord, through the neck, into the armpit).
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The upside of all this is that one’s carpal tunnel, while not typically terribly susceptible to repetitive motion injuries, seemingly became more vulnerable with the introduction of the personal computer and flood of workers into jobs that required they sit at these computers all day long.
The position of one’s wrists while using a typical keyboard and mouse isn’t, in moderation, something that’s likely to harm a person’s (honestly fairly rugged) arm-hand system of bones and sinew and nerves.
But do anything for long periods of time, without a break, every single day? That can lead to this type of injury.
Thus, around the time everyone’s job was becoming a computer job, this newfangled injury started showing up in the numbers, and became a bit of a cultural touchpoint: the term was everywhere, all of a sudden, and seemingly everyone was getting it.
A recent piece in The Atlantic took a look at this plague of injured wrists and posited that it may have actually been the result of an over-reliance by news entities on anecdata from within their own ranks.
A lot of journalists at influential papers were being forced by their bosses to use badly designed 1980s- and 1990s-era workstations that had cumbersome keyboards and fixed desks that contorted their users’ bodies (and importantly, their wrists) in damaging ways, all day, every day.
This reporting may have melded with new, well-intentioned policies at many white-collar workplaces that were meant to help employees catch physical issues before they became worse, monetarily significant issues, by encouraging workers to report (to HR) anything that seemed like it could be an injury.
The theory is that this encouragement, plus all the news reportage on computer-caused carpal tunnel syndrome, could have led to a torrent of reports from workers who understandably believed their minor aches and pains might be this far more serious issue.
All those reports would then be documented in the official data, and that data would be used by journalists to support the assertion that this was a real thing; a self-reinforcing cycle.
There’s more to this potential narrative, including a 1983 surge in carpal tunnel reports in Australia, and later explorations of regional data suggesting that the country’s surge in “kangaroo paw” symptoms may have been the consequence of increased visibility (to data-tracking authorities) of certain symptoms (caused by a change in who was financially responsible for such issues), not an actual epidemic of new conditions.
But all of this does make one wonder to what degree the trending health issues of today are real-deal concerns that demand action (like enhanced at-work ergonomics), and which are more likely to be convincing specters created by a change in industry incentives, data-aggregation practices, or regulatory framing.