Upper Limb Disorders

What is an upper limb disorder (ULD)?

Upper limb disorder (ULD) is a blanket term covering all sorts of conditions causing pains or discomfort in the hands, arms and shoulders. It is sometimes wrongly called Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

What are the signs?

The main symptoms are aches and pains, and difficulty in movement. Sometimes ULD can cause swelling. Some ULD conditions are well understood, but others have less distinct symptoms and have been the subject of some controversy.
Frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome and tenosynovitis are well understood and are some of the most common conditions.

It is normal to experience pain or discomfort in your upper limbs from time to time. It is not usually caused by work, but can be aggravated by certain types of work. Pain that persists should be discussed with your occupational health service or GP. If treated properly, most people make a full recovery. Leaving aches and pains to continue can cause the problem to become chronic and much more difficult to treat.

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What can cause ULD?

The following activities might cause upper limb pain:

  • DIY
  • Gardening
  • Housework
  • Sports
  • Work

Am I at risk?

Risk is increased by home or work-based activities that involve

  • frequent repetitive movements
  • excessive force
  • awkward posture
  • insufficient recovery time between activities.

Both office-based and manual jobs can cause ULDs. It is not true that they only affect keyboard workers. For example, ULDs occur in repetitive assembly line work, inspection and packing, meat and poultry preparation, laboratory work (e.g. pipetting) and many other jobs.

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How can ULDs be treated?

A persistent problem with aches or pains should be discussed with the Occupational Health service as they have the best understanding of the work environment and can give you impartial and professional advice. Alternatively, you could talk to your GP or a physiotherapist. They may be able to

  • identify the cause of ULD
  • advise on treatment and arrange physiotherapy in some cases
  • investigate how changes in your job and home life could help and make recommendations.

An early assessment, by Occupational Health or your GP, is important in preventing the complaint becoming chronic.