Bartenders have been suffering from repetitive stress injuries for as long as bartending has been a profession. The constant use of your hands for pouring, shaking, chopping, muddling and tapping can create a lot of stress in your tendons and joints. Avoid repetitive stress injuries with a few helpful tips that should hopefully keep you out of the doctor’s office and behind the bar.

These tips are based on my own research and are not from a doctor. If you think you’re at risk for an RSI or already have one, it’s important to speak with a medical professional.

What is a Repetitive Stress Injury?

Repetitive stress injuries (RSI) include injuries like bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. These injuries are common when a person performs the same movement over and over again. Most people think of these injuries as a risk for people who work at computers – but they are absolutely a threat to bartenders as well. There are over 25 bones in the human hand connected to nerves, muscles and tendons. When the hand performs a repetitive movement, the movement can put stress on the tendons and joints. Some of these afflictions are better known by their nicknames, “trigger finger” and (perhaps most common for bartenders) “tennis elbow”.

How Do I know I Have a Repetitive Stress Injury?

Since RSI’s are not uncommon for bartenders, it’s important to keep an eye out for early symptoms. If you experience pain, swelling, tingling, numbness, stiffness, weakness and heat or cold sensitivity in your hands, wrists, elbows, (or the area that you use repetitively every day), you might have an RSI. This type of injury hurts especially during the hours you are performing the job that caused it. If you think you might be suffering from this type of injury, you should contact a doctor to talk about treatment options.

Avoiding and Preventing Repetitive Stress Injuries

In the USA, not all bartenders are fortunate enough to be able to easily / affordably see a doctor if these injuries occur – so it’s even more important to try to prevent them from happening at all. The fact of the matter is, if you constantly use the same motions over and over again, you are at risk.

Here are a couple of tips that may reduce the probability that a bartender develops an RSI:

  • Mix it Up: Try to vary which hand you use for common motions like shaking or pouring. This will spread the load and allow your most-often-used muscles and joints to rest a bit.
  • Take Breaks: Frequent breaks allow your joints, muscles and tendons to relax. If you can’t take breaks frequently, try to switch the order of your tasks so you’re not always doing lots of the same activity in a row.
  • Watch your Posture: Where possible, avoid bending your wrist unnecessarily. For example, when pouring, consider pouring with your full arm instead of just bending your wrist. It may look (and feel) a bit odd at first, but it’ll reduce the stress on your wrist.
  • Brace Yourself: Back, arm and wrist braces may help you keep a correct posture and reduce risk of injury. However, they are not intended as “crutches” so you can keep doing the harmful behaviors for longer – so be careful if using this approach. For tennis elbow, I recommend this brace as it provides the compression sleeve as well as the brace.
  • Stretching: Stretch before your shift and during breaks. Neck shrugs, shoulder stretches, forearm stretches and twists and torso twists can all be helpful.

Don’t Try to Heal Yourself

Don’t try to diagnose your injury yourself. You should seek medical treatment immediately if you think you have an RSI. Your doctor can help you find and implement the best possible treatment methods. Trying to treat yourself with ice, heat, massage or stretching can make the RSI worse. If you think you have an RSI you should avoid movements that are painful, especially movements which you suspect caused the injury originally. You may need to take time off work to allow time for the RSI to heal – which is why it’s so important to pro-actively avoid these injuries in the first place!

Your doctor can provide plenty of treatment options to keep your hands as healthy as possible. You’ll probably start by getting plenty of rest, icing the afflicted area and keeping it elevated. Your doctor might prescribe an anti-inflammatory like Benadryl. Employers are required to provide treatment and prevention for RSIs, so you can count on your bar manager to help you out with a plan. You can visit an occupational therapist who will show you exercises, stretches and weightlifting techniques to strengthen your muscles to take the strain off your ligaments. Depending on the severity of your injury, your doctor might also prescribe a steroid shot to help with the pain.

Have the Conversation

I know a lot of the suggestions in this article seem idyllic and out of reach – (What manager will approve frequent breaks?) it’s important to note that in the US, employers are reponsible for helping their employees stay safe and healthy. It’s in their interest to avoid bartender RSI’s, because RSI’s can be very costly for the business if they occur. Consider having a conversation with your manager to discuss how to proactively avoid these problems for yourself and your team. It’s in everyone’s interest to stay safe and healthy long-term!

Julia Tunstall

Julia Tunstall is the co-founder of A Bar Above and Chief Cocktail Taster. She's in charge of keeping things running smoothly around here, but you'll also find her stopping by on the Mixology Talk Podcast or hanging around the Craft Cocktail Club.