Repetitive strain injury, a painful condition that is costly to workers compensation boards, plagues an estimated 2.3 million adult Canadians, Statistics Canada reported Tuesday.

A repetitive strain injury is a group of disorders usually caused by repetitive movements affecting the muscles, tendons and nerves. Unlike other injuries, which occur at a single point in time, RSIs develop over an extended period.

Statistics Canada's 2000-01 survey questioned 113,000 Canadians about their health. Researchers asked whether people had suffered an RSI that restricted their normal personal activities in the past 12 months.

The agency first began collecting data on RSIs in 1996-97. Since then, the prevalence increased from eight to 10 per cent, affecting an estimated one in 10 Canadians aged 20 or older.

Two years later, those who reported pain and psychological distress continued to say they had symptoms.

The agency found working, itself, did not increase the likelihood of an RSI. "However, among those who did work, the type of job mattered," the report said. "Least likely to be injured were people in management."

Rather than seeking jobs in management, analyst Michael Tjepkema of Statistics Canada suggested people focus on prevention by having regular massages and avoid sitting for more than four hours at a time.

Concert pianist and music instructor Leslie Kinton plays four hours a day. Sitting for long periods with his hands flying over the keys almost brought an end to his career.

"I was terrified, frankly," said Kinton. "I have other things I can do. But when you love to do something so much and a flukey little thing like that can finish it, it's frightening."

  • try not to bend, extend or twist your wrists for long periods
  • don't work with your arms too close to or too far from your body
  • switch hands when you do tasks
  • take regular breaks
  • don't let your wrists rest on hard surfaces for a long time
  • adjust the height of your chair so that your forearms are level with your keyboard and you don't have to flex your wrists to type
  • Physiotherapist Maureen Dwight of Toronto said the results of repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome can be serious.

    "It can be job inhibiting," said Dwight. "Your loss of productivity can be huge, so the loss economically to employers is huge."

    She said people need to address not only their work environment, but also fatigue, diet, sleep, exercise and stress.

    "We know stress is associated with RSI," Tjepkema told CBC News Online. "It plays an important part of the equation," but a cross-sectional survey can't reveal if stress increases RSI or vice-versa.