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What is Overuse Syndrome?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Overuse syndrome is an injury sustained as a result of excessive hard use. The part of the body which is injured may be worked too hard, too long, or too frequently, and it is damaged as a result. On a low level, overuse syndrome can cause mild pain and inflammation. More seriously, people can be so severely injured that they require surgery or other measures to correct the damage. For this reason, it is very important to take overuse syndrome seriously, and to intervene quickly when signs are identified.

Historically, overuse syndrome was especially common among athletes. Athletes sometimes refer to it as overtraining. Overtraining can occur as a result of not training wisely, and can happen to athletes in a wide variety of sports. Today, overuse syndrome is growing especially common in the workforce, where it is sometimes known as occupational overuse syndrome, cumulative trauma disorder (CTD), or repetitive stress/strain injury (RSI). Overuse syndrome in the workplace has been linked with a variety of things, ranging from longer working hours to increased use of technology.

Some examples of conditions linked with overuse syndrome are: shin splints, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and trigger finger. The early warning signs can be stiffness, pain, soreness, inflammation, and heat. Over time, the symptoms will grow more intense and more sustained. Eventually, overuse can lead to permanent damage to muscles, bones, and tendons, which can have serious consequences.

The immediate treatment for overuse syndrome is rest. Allowing the body to rest and recover can give it a chance to heal naturally. People may help the body along with antiinflammatory drugs, applications of hot and cold compresses, and similar treatments. Once someone goes back to work or training, it is important to make adjustments to avoid a recurring injury. These can include working and training differently, working with a physical therapist to improve strength and tone, and asking a coach or ergonomics evaluator to observe and provide suggestions to work out or work more safely.

If someone works through the pain or reinjures the area, more aggressive treatment may be required to address the overuse syndrome. A doctor who specializes in sports medicine or occupational health can provide an evaluation and discuss treatment options with the patient. These can include splinting, surgery, and other measures. In some cases, it may be necessary to give up an activity for an extended period of time to allow the body to recover from overuse.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By seHiro — On Sep 07, 2011

@Hawthorne - Don't worry, the doctor wasn't accusing your dad of working his shoulder into injury because he wanted to.

By definition, in medicine a "syndrome" is just recognizable signs of a specific condition that doctors can recognize in a patient by examining them, including symptoms that a patient can report as experiencing.

Overuse syndrome isn't always the fault of the person who experiences it. A lot of people wind up with overuse injuries such as a snapping hip or a stiff shoulder from their occupations, and can't really choose not to do the activities over and over for exactly the reason you stated -- they need a paycheck.

On the other hand, there are certainly people that develop overuse from being foolish and pushing themselves too far. It happens to a lot of people who get determined to work out and get in shape, particularly, because they're not in shape when they try it and they think it's "tough love" and "determination" to work through the pain.

By Hawthorne — On Sep 06, 2011

Wow, so this is a syndrome? I tend to think of "syndrome" as applying to a mental thing that's kind of compulsive, but that could just be my own impressions. All I know is that when my dad wound up with what the doctor called "shoulder syndrome", I wasn't sure what to think since I knew the circumstances of his injury.

Dad works at an old-fashioned dairy farm. He milks cows for several hours per evening, seven days per week. It's hard work, and requires you to do a lot of pulling levers to open and close the milking stall doors, and to lift lots of heavy things. All of this adds up to dad injuring his shoulder from repetitive motions that put strain on it.

I know dad worked through the pain in his shoulder not out of any compulsion, but because he had no choice. We needed a paycheck. So why do they call it a "syndrome", anyway?

By aishia — On Sep 06, 2011

@SkittisH - I'm assuming your sister did stretches and cool downs and warm ups like she was supposed to. While I agree that extreme excess is unhealthy, I think in this case it's just your sister's own condition that's to blame.

You said yourself that her flat arches were an extra chance to hurt herself. Now add to that the fact that she was several hundred pounds overweight -- that's a lot, and that kind of weight puts serious strain on the feet!

If she'd started out slowly, it might have worked, but since she jumped right in to exercising hours at a time daily, and on her flat-arched feet that weren't at all used to being walked on that much, she just hurt herself. This is a cautionary tale -- always bear your own physical condition in mind when you try to do any new physical activity, and listen when your body tells you something's wrong.

By SkittisH — On Sep 05, 2011

@comfyshoes - It sounds like you're doing everything right to prevent overuse injuries -- proper warming up and cooling down, stretches, and the right footwear.

My sister did all of these things, too, and wound up with overuse syndrome regardless because she had very flat arches. So flat the doctor wanted to take pictures to show his doctor friends to prove that he'd actually had a patient with feet that flat.

Because of her flat feet, my sister needed very specific arch support to keep from injuring herself. Unfortunately, she didn't know that when she started a rigorous exercise routine to lose the several hundred pounds of weight she wanted to get rid of.

She jumped in determined to stay on track, exercised for a few hours each day most days of the week...and injured her feet so bad she needed to stay sitting down for a few weeks while the doctor decided if she needed surgery or not.

The point I'm trying to make here is that you can hurt yourself even with the proper gear and when you think you're doing everything right. Excess is unhealthy, plain and simple.

By comfyshoes — On Sep 05, 2011

@Bhutan - I ran six days a week when I was training for a half marathon and I never developed any type of injury. I always made sure that I warmed up and cooled down when I finished my workout and always changed my sneakers every three months.

If you workout with the wrong type of sneakers you really have a higher chance of developing typical overuse injuries like shin splints because if your sneakers do not provide the proper shock absorption when you run you will really feel the burn and get hurt.

I also believe that if you are also involved in a strength training routine a few times a week, your muscles will be stronger and you will be less prone to injury. The only time I developed an injury like this was when I played a lot of tennis. My elbows started to hurt after a while because I was constantly keeping my arms bent when I played. Having tennis elbow is really no fun.

By Bhutan — On Sep 04, 2011

I know as an avid runner I would sometimes suffer from an overuse injury. I think that this is very common if you run more than five times a week because the risk of injury becomes higher. I usually start to develop hip and knee pain and have to switch to swimming or some other type of low impact exercise until I recover.

I think that this happens to a lot of athletes like runners because running is addictive and many people love the exhilaration of getting that runners high. This only comes from really intense exercise which is why runners take the risk.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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