What’s the Difference Between Carpal Tunnel and RSI?


Woman holding her wrist in pain from either carpal tunnel or RSI

Carpal tunnel and RSI are often thought to be the same thing but they are actually completely different.

The difference between the two is:

  • Carpal tunnel is caused by injuring one specific nerve in the wrist (the median nerve)
  • RSI - repetitive strain injury - can affect many other parts of the body, most commonly the wrist, elbow and shoulder.

Both injuries are relatively common, but more people suffer from RSI than CTS.

Over 7% of the population will suffer from RSI while CTS affects 3% of women and 2% of men at some point in their life.

Some symptoms of RSI and carpal tunnel are the same - such as pain - but they are different injuries with different treatments. Both conditions need professional medical attention and rest.

Read on to find out more about the causes and symptoms of RSI and carpal tunnel and if you suspect you are affected, seek advice from your doctor.


What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve in the wrist. Frequent wrist bending, gripping, vibrating hand tools and playing musical instruments can cause carpal tunnel. Women between the ages of 40 and 60 and pregnant women are at higher risk of developing CTS.

People are also more likely to suffer from CTS following rapid weight gain, being overweight, have a pre-existing condition like diabetes or arthritis or working in jobs that require repetitive hand movements.

Carpal Tunnel Symptoms

Common carpal tunnel symptoms include:

  • Pins and needles
  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Hand weakness
  • Referred pain into the arm and shoulder

Preventing and Treating Carpal Tunnel

Preventing carpal tunnel is possible by avoiding repetitive work and sports or hobbies that involve hands and arms. Using hands less forcefully and tensed up will reduce the stress on your body.

Taking a 10 to 15-minute break every hour from work or hobbies will allow muscles and tendons to relax, alleviating pressure on the median nerve. Stretching and exercising hands and remembering to keep your wrists in a neutral position rather than extended position can also help prevent carpal tunnel.

Possible treatments include:

  • Physiotherapy
  • Rest
  • Splints for wrist or hand at night
  • Medication to reduce fluid retention
  • Injections into the affected area to reduce inflammation
  • Surgery to cut the ligament and reduce pressure on the median nerve

What Happens if Carpal Tunnel Goes Untreated?

It’s essential to get treatment for carpal tunnel as soon as possible and not ignore pain and stiffness. If left untreated, carpal tunnel can cause weakness from wasting on the thumb side of your hands. Your thumb and finger may not be as coordinated as they were. Some people who have been treated for their CTS injury, still experience a lack of strength and sensation in their hand from the nerve damage. See your doctor for a correct diagnosis and treatment plan.


What is Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)?

Repetitive Strain Injury is a painful injury that can occur in many parts of the body caused by repetitive tasks, vibration, exertion, compression and awkward positions.

What are the Symptoms of RSI?

The symptoms of RSI can range from tingling in the hand or arm to loss of sensation and strength through to tenderness and throbbing pain in an affected muscle or joint.

RSI is more common in older than younger adults with 24% of adults aged 41-63 years reporting they have had RSI.

Respondents of a survey reported the most common locations for RSI as the wrist (69%), fingers (29%), forearms (23%) and thumbs (20%). Other locations include the elbows, shoulders and knees depending on the type of work and hobbies people do.

While RSI has become more prevalent with the use of keyboards for work, RSI has been around for much longer than the keyboard. As early as 1700 an Italian doctor noticed the condition amongst musicians and clerks.

RSI has been known by several other names relating to the type of work people do including writer’s cramp, housemaid’s knee, potter’s wrist and weaver’s bottom. Hobbies are to blame as well including tennis elbow and golf elbow.

Preventing and Treating RSI

Exercising joints can help prevent RSI. Stretching wrists and fingers by extending the fingers back one by one and then all back at the same time can loosen tightness.

Try holding hands in a prayer position and applying pressure to each hand to warm up your hands before work. Repeat exercises after taking a break.

If you work at a computer all day, remember to get up and walk around regularly throughout the day.

Treatment should begin as soon as you notice any symptoms. If you have aches or pains, see your doctor for a correct diagnosis and treatment as chronic RSI is challenging to treat. You should also modify your behaviour and stop making the repetitive motion.

If your RSI is related to the workplace, you could either do less computer work or try using an ergonomic style mouse or ergonomic keyboard. Take a look at at our guide to choosing an ergonomic mouse here.

Possible treatments include:

  • Hot and cold packs
  • Physiotherapy
  • Massage
  • Taubman Approach
  • Osteopathy
  • Acupuncture
  • Anti-inflammatory medication

How Long Does it Take for RSI to Heal?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this common question. Some people can stop the activity as soon as they experience pain and the symptoms ease within a few weeks while other people continue to experience pain for a year or more. For some people who either can’t or won’t modify behaviour, their RSI can continue for years.

If you are looking ergonomic computer and office equipment, contact the experts at Ergolink by visiting the showroom, call us on (08) 9240 7066 or contact us online for more personalised advice.