Treating RSI

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Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is not a malady that can be treated instantly. "These are soft-tissue injuries, probably best characterized as neuromuscular problems," says Emil F. Pascarelli, M.D., a professor of clinical medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and coauthor of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide (1994). "They're not conditions that are amenable to surgery. Soft-tissue injuries really should be treated with stretching, physical therapy, occupational therapy, other ancillary treatments, but most importantly, an exercise regimen that's done at home."

At Harvard, about 300 patients have been treated for RSI-related conditions at University Health Services in the last year, says chief of medicine Christopher M. Coley, M.D. '83. Successful treatment is linked to the severity of the injuries, and pain may take anywhere from several weeks to many months to disappear.

In March, the Harvard provost's office awarded an interfaculty collaboration grant to study "Keyboard-Associated Upper Extremity Disorders at Harvard University" to Jeffrey N. Katz, M.D., M.P.M. '90, an assistant professor of medicine at the Medical School. Katz's research group, which includes faculty members from the School of Public Health and the Business School, will develop surveys to obtain better data on the prevalence of RSI at Harvard.

Christopher Coley emphasizes that the recent, apparently sharp jump in the number of RSI sufferers might be more of a reflection of increased media attention and publicity. "When things become notorious, or at least [register] on the radar scope," he says, "people who have low-level symptoms they may have ignored before will often present themselves." He expresses the hope that, "with better education, we're going to see more and more people practicing primary prevention."

Read more articles by Sewell Chan
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