What Is a Cumulative Trauma Disorder?

What Is a Cumulative Trauma Disorder?

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A cumulative trauma disorder is a condition where a part of the body is injured by repeatedly overusing or putting stress on that body part. Also known as a repetitive stress injury, cumulative trauma occurs when a body part is pushed to work at a greater level than intended over an extended period of time.

The immediate effect of the action may be relatively minor, but it's the repetition that causes the injury, and the build up of trauma, causes the disorder.

Cumulative trauma disorders a most common in the body's joints, and can affect the muscle, bone, tendon or bursa (the fluid cushion) around the joint.

Symptoms of Cumulative Trauma Disorders

Usually, these injuries are marked by pain or tingling at the injury site. Sometimes sufferers will have partial or total numbness in the affected area. Absent any of these acute symptoms, a person may notice a reduced range of motion in the affected area. For instance, someone with a cumulative trauma disorder of the wrist or hand may find it difficult to make a fist.

Types of Cumulative Trauma Disorders

A common cumulative trauma disorder is carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition that causes pinching on a nerve in the wrist. It can be painful and in some cases debilitating. Workers most at risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome usually have jobs that involve constant or repetitive motion using their hands. This includes people who type all day without proper wrist support, construction workers who use small tools, and people who drive all day long.

Here are other common cumulative stress disorders:

  • Tendonitis: This is a painful condition marked by inflammation and swelling of a tendon, which are the fibrous bands that connect bones to muscles. Since the body has thousands of tendons, there are many different kinds of tendonitis, usually classified either by body part (such as patellar tendonitis, which affects the patella in the knee) or by the repetitive action that causes the trauma (like "tennis elbow")
  • Shin Splints: Shin splints are an injury to the front lower leg or more specifically, the shin bone. They're usually the result of a repetitive action like long-distance running but can sometimes occur after an acute injury.
  • Bursitis: A bursa is a fluid-filled sac located around a joint that reduces friction and eases movement as tendons or muscles pass over bones or skin. When a bursa becomes irritated or inflamed, it's a condition known as bursitis. It's most common in the shoulder, knee and hip joints, after repetitive motions like running and reaching.

Treatment and Prevention of Cumulative Stress Disorders

Most workplaces now offer ergonomic support to help prevent cumulative stress disorders; those who type all day can get wrist rests and keyboards shaped to better support the hands and wrists. And many assembly lines at manufacturing plants have been redesigned to ensure workers performing repetitive motions aren't bending or moving into awkward positions that may stress joints.

The treatment for a cumulative stress disorder will vary depending on the location and severity of the injury. For the majority of these injuries, curbing the activity that caused the trauma in the first place helps keep the pain and discomfort in check. This would mean a runner with patellar tendonitis would stop running for a while, for instance.

But in some cases, these injuries require more aggressive treatments, such as cortisone shots, or even surgery to correct the damage done by the repetitive action.