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People Making Changes Issue 20 -
Living With OOS / RSI And MANAGING It

- Dorothy - 26/6/97

An interview with Rhona Thorpe. Part 1 - The pain, the loss of confidence and the early search for help.

What is OOS/RSI?
Occupational Overuse Syndrome/Repetitive Strain Injury is a condition that is gradually getting more widely recognised. OOS is an umbrella term for a number of particular conditions - inflammation in hands, wrists, forearms, lower back, knees and is usually used to describe conditions resulting from the sufferer's occupation. The term RSI has a wider application. Therefore Rhona chooses to use both terms combined.

The people in occupations where OOS/RSI most commonly occurs are machinists and freezing workers - even more frequently than those using word processors and checkout operators in supermarkets.

Frequently the type of person who develops symptoms is a perfectionist who is trying so hard to do an excellent job that muscles are tensed in the process and not released.

Diagnosis in the past
A frequent diagnosis has been that the pain is from arthritis. Recognition of OOS/RSI is comparatively new. The recognition greatly increased when men as well as women began to get it! Tennis elbow and housemaid's knee were associated with women. These were long recognised conditions and symptoms were accepted without investigating causes. With increasing use of their personal computers and typing of their own reports and theses men showed symptoms as well. These men were articulate people who were able to describe their condition. They sought recognition and help and were taken more seriously than women with the type of symptoms that had long been known to the medical profession.

What was Rhona's own experience with OOS/RSI?
Years ago the first specific pain started in her right elbow after she had

been gardening or phoning. It did not last long. In 1995 she helped a friend in her garden and worked to clear overgrown grass. She put in a lot of effort - her typical pattern of work. She hit a heavy shovel on a log concealed by the long grass. This caused severe pain in her elbow and although with time it lessened it did not clear up. Rhona did not go to seek help. A year later a session of dressmaking before a family wedding further aggravated the pain in her right arm. She had done yoga since 1976 and believes that the relaxation techniques learnt through yoga enabled her to carry on with the wedding preparations and join in the festivities.

During the following month the pain in her arm began to intensify. Although she is strongly right-handed she was forced to learn to do some of the painful activities such as cleaning her teeth with her other hand.

Word processing aggravates the symptoms
For two years she had been working on the word processor for short periods without any problems. However. during one week she had to work on two documents under pressure and her right hand began to swell and be very painful. She used her left hand instead but after two mornings using it the same pain developed in it as well. An old unexplained ache in her lower back also worsened.

All of this made her suspect that she had OOS/RSI and spurred her to action. Taking a self-help approach she rang Citizens' Advice for a contact number for the OOS Support Group. At that time, in May 1996, the group was not giving the names of specialist physiotherapists, but they did mention selenium tablets, certain herbs and the benefit of general massage They also recommended Dr W. E. D.Turner. He is an occupational medicine specialist physician who has researched the condition. His booklet "The Occupational Overuse Syndrome(1995)" is available through some GPs.

At this time the pain in both arms, especially the forearms, was severe, and Rhona understandably became very anxious and tense - a factor which she now believes aggravates the pain. Dr Turner's booklet emphasises rest. He suggests exercises and also soaking in hot and cold water alternately. These measures gave little relief at that stage. Giving up lifting and abandoning the word processor was made necessary by the pain, but the reduction in the use of her arms did not bring relief.

Night pain
Night pain followed, a symptom of the advance of the condition. It was so excruciating that Rhona could find no position to relieve the pain, and therefore had little sleep. She began to believe that she was losing the power in her arms.

Relaxation massage
Sessions with a massage therapist eased the tension and Rhona began to think that there was some hope of recovery. She knew, however, that this was not enough. The pain returned soon after the treatment, so she had to have massage twice weekly.

Consultation with the general practitioner
The next step was a visit to the doctor. She did not want to become dependent on pain killers, and no other treatment was discussed then. Voltaran was prescribed later. X-rays and a bone scan of the painful area in her lower back showed that it was definitely not arthritis.

More self-help
She read widely, and tried all suitable ideas. She took note of the symptoms and any changes in her condition. She was using a whiteboard once a fortnight as part of a short course she was teaching, and noticed that each time she was more restricted in the height she could reach on the board. Her elbows began to rebel at holding the telephone, and she even had to give up her daily walk.

Ideas began to be connected in her mind - an important aspect of dealing with this condition. She realised that her perfectionist approach to her work had caused a lot of tension in her muscles. For instance when word processing she had used unnecessary energy and tired her wrists.

Further distressing symptoms
For many years she and her husband, Hugh, had shared the domestic chores, but she was finding that she could not cut hard vegetables, could not manage the vacuum cleaning, and felt great pain even when turning on a tap. Driving the car became painful for her hands and arms, and even for her left hip. Getting dressed was extremely difficult. Even turning on a light switch was painful. Shaking hands was an agonising experience.

A comment that gave hope
Then after three months she was told by another sufferer from OOS/RSI, "It is manageable, you know." That word 'manageable' Rhona now believes is of key importance. It reversed for her the image of the downward spiral.

Read Part 2 to find out how Rhona learnt to manage this condition and what her advice is to others who develop possible symptoms of OOS/RSI.

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