The ‘Low Down’ On Upper Limb Disorders

Within the world of occupational health, there is a clear use of the term ‘upper limb disorders’ to refer to (unsurprisingly) disorders of the upper limb that are generally attributed to work or occupations. Upper limb disorders are quite common in people who have to use a computer, or students who have spent too long hunched over a laptop and who then develop symptoms such as tenderness in the upper limbs, or aches, pains, cramps etc in the shoulders, arms or fingers, even the wrists. Yet many people who are familiar with the term Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) still are unaware of the use of ULD to describe pain and suffering caused by repetitive tasks, whereas they prefer to use the term RSI. So what exactly is a ULD and how does it differ from RSI?

RSI Defined

RSI is a more old fashioned term to describe conditions that were caused by repetitive tasks. RSI is a ‘repetitive strain injury’ and it was used to describe conditions such as vibration white finger, where the fingers of someone using heavy drilling equipment may be injured through repetitive strain i.e. a repetitive action. So the name was quite self explanatory. When computer use began to be much more prevalent and people started to develop symptoms of pain associated with over use of a PC or through poor posture, the term RSI was often attributed to their condition, simply because there were no other words that could accurately describe the condition.

However, it soon became apparent that to use the term RSI when referring to pain or conditions used by PCs or sitting/standing for too long etc, was inappropriate simply because there was often no repetitive strain and there was no visible injury. In some ways therefore it is inappropriate to describe an ULD as being the same as RSI and that is why the name was changed.

Upper Limb Disorders Defined

Due to the number of upper limb disorders, it was felt that the generic term ULD was a more accurate portrayal of a number of conditions. Instead of describing it as an injury or inferring there was repetitive strain, the term ULD simply is the umbrella diagnosis, but the condition that the person experiences could be one of 20 or so disorders.

There are conditions such as tendonitis (a condition that affects the fingers, forearm, hand or all three), carpal tunnel syndrome or shoulder capsulitis. There are even some non specific upper limb disorders, where the patient may present with pain and symptoms of a ULD, but there may be symptoms that do not fit easily into a specific box, hence they are often referred to as non-specific ULDs.

Treatment of ULDs

Luckily there are many treatment options available for patients who are experiencing an upper limb disorder, but the key is to seek expert treatment at the earliest opportunity and to have aids or adaptations professionally recommended, as well as education about how to prevent the condition reoccurring. Learning more about what has caused the condition can ensure that once treatment has been successful, the condition will not re-occur!