What are work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs)?

How on-the-job pain and injury touches every industry—and what employers can do about it

Published Date: Nov 6, 2023

We talk a lot about how pain affects workplaces—which it does, in a very profound way. But the opposite is also true. The activities people do and body positions they find themselves in on the job can cause work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) that lead to acute and chronic pain—pain that can make work difficult or even impossible and affect their mental health.

Work-related MSDs can affect the nurse who lifts patients and the factory employee who packs boxes. The same is true for the office worker hunched over their laptop working on spreadsheets and the retail salesperson who is on their feet all shift.

For organizations, not providing holistic support to address WMSDs can lead to reduced productivity, higher absenteeism, increased healthcare costs, and plummeting employee well-being.

But it’s not all bad news. When employers and employees work together to understand the common risk factors that contribute to workplace MSDs, learn preventative tactics to help avoid them, and intervene in a timely way if injuries do occur, the prevalence, severity, and impact of these issues can be greatly reduced.

In this article, we will cover types of common work-related musculoskeletal disorders, dive into how they affect your business, and explore how you can help your people avoid them as much as possible. 

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders are soft tissue conditions and injuries that are caused or worsened by on-the-job tasks ranging from typing and lifting to sitting and bending. WMSDs can affect muscles, joints, cartilage, tendons, spinal discs, and nerves, resulting in issues such as sprains, strains, tears, lower back pain, upper back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, hernias, arthritis, tendonitis, and other conditions.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, 1.71 billion people worldwide have some musculoskeletal disorder. The nature of work activities can influence a person’s risk of a workplace MSD, but it’s important to note that people with obviously physically demanding jobs (e.g., in construction, manufacturing) aren’t the only ones affected.

Likewise, both physical and psychological factors can play a part.

Causes of workplace MSDs

No organization or worker is excluded from being at risk for workplace MSD. Certain risk factors may just be more at play for some people than others. Often, several contribute to these issues.

Some common workplace MSD risk factors include:

  • Staying in the same position for a long period

  • Working in an awkward position or maintaining poor posture

  • Engaging in work that requires repetitive motion

  • Lifting heavy items

  • Overhead work

  • Twisting and carrying

  • Exposure to vibrations

  • Stress; demanding workload

Examples of MSDs and injuries in the workplace

Workplace MSDs can be acute problems that end up developing into costly, long-term concerns.

Part of this is due to poor recognition of these disorders and the need to prevent and manage them early on.

Many WMSDs develop over time, resulting in symptoms such as pain, tightness, weakness, numbness, and so on. The earliest signs may come in the form of excessive fatigue or discomfort well before this.

Here are four main categories of workplace MSDs:

1. Muscle injuries

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, muscle injuries like sprains and strains are the most common types of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. They can be caused by repetitive motion or overexertion that results in cumulative trauma to muscle tissue.

Even holding specific or awkward body postures elevates the risk of muscle pain.

2. Tendon injuries

Tendon injuries result from tears or an inflammation of cords that attach muscle to the bone. 

Like muscle injuries, work-related tendon injuries also occur from repetitive stress placed on the tendon, especially in the upper limbs. Tendon injuries can be excruciating for workers and considerably limit their range of motion, output, and performance. 

3. Joint injuries 

A lack of ergonomic support can spur the onset and rapid development of joint injuries like arthritis, which is the swelling and tenderness of one or more joints. Once thought to be due to aging, joint disorders are now understood to be due to an accumulation of microtrauma.

This has become an issue of even greater focus since more and more people are working remotely in home office set-ups that may not be ergonomically sound, which can lead to shoulder and neck pain, soreness, stiffness, and even pinched nerves.

“Tech neck” is an WMSD that more and more workers are facing. This is when strain is placed on the major joints in the neck while looking at a mobile phone, tablet, or other device.

Bursitis, or inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs that are near large joints, is another common work-related MSD. This condition is characterized by pain and tenderness throughout the body, including around the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, and heel.

Bursitis can result from people sitting on hard surfaces for long periods, resting their arms or elbows on a hard surface, using a keyboard frequently, or kneeling repeatedly. Bursitis is particularly concerning because of the invasiveness, cost, and recovery time involved with treatment.

4. Nerve injuries

Nerve injuries are more serious than other types of WMSDs because they can lead to severe pain, loss of motor skills, and disability.

Like other types of WMSDs, repetitive motion is a contributing factor to nerve injuries, especially when operating heavy machinery or power tools. Vibrations from machinery can further cause damage to the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles in the hand and arm, as well as the shoulders and neck.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a well-known work-related nerve injury that typically affects those who type on a keyboard all day. It is also common among those whose work involves other types of repetitive motion.

With carpal tunnel syndrome, a major nerve to the hand gets compressed. This can occur when nearby tissues swell. Symptoms can include numbness, tingling, weakness, and pain.

How WMSDs affect your business

WMSDs and their associated pain can greatly impact your business in the following ways, especially if they progress and become chronic.

  • Absenteeism: WMSDs can cause pain, movement limitations, and other issues that make it too difficult for someone to come to work.

  • Reduced productivity: Employees managing a WMSD may need to take extra breaks, move slower when performing daily duties, or refrain from certain physical tasks.

  • Safety concerns: A warehouse worker with shoulder pain may drop something on a colleague after they lift it; a person climbing a ladder may lose their balance if the nerves in their feet are injured; a dental technician who relies on steady hands may be clumsy with tools when performing a cleaning; and so on.

  • Worsened workforce mental health: Pain increases issues such as anxiety and depression, which affects retention, satisfaction, concentration, and more.

  • Higher healthcare costs: For employers, MSK care—workplace-related and otherwise—remains one of the top three healthcare cost drivers.

When your employees understand how to prevent or manage emerging WMSDs, they are more empowered to manage their well-being.

There are several ways your organization can help to raise more awareness and bring understanding about the risk and impact of workplace MSDs:

1) Implement risk assessments

Conduct assessments of your workplace and work functions to check for the general risk factors listed above, as well as any that may be specific to your organization.

The CDC notes that walking through your workspace(s) to observe how different workers perform the same tasks can help identify risks. For example, maybe a shelf of packing supplies is at a comfortable height for some workers, but you notice others having to stretch to reach them.

You may also benefit from the assistance of a professional consultant.

2) Educate and encourage

Prevention is key to reducing the risk of WMSDs. This starts with awareness and internal support.

Some suggestions:

  • Create an environment where employees feel free to report symptoms such as fatigue and discomfort, and adjust their work accordingly, if possible.

  • Ensure workers understand proper body mechanics and posture for the work they do.

  • Educate on and encourage physical conditioning tailored to the physical demands of the job.

  • Promote rest breaks, stretching, and overall healthy habits.

3) Offer ergonomic support

Ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace so that it is comfortable and safe, as well as efficient. The goal is to reduce physical strain and unnecessary effort that might otherwise come about due to the work environment and/or job duties.

Ergonomic design is centered around the needs of the worker. Examples of ergonomic interventions that can help reduce workplace MSDs include:

  • Providing chairs designed to support employees’ backs, hips, and thighs

  • Offering adjustable-height workstations 

  • Arranging supplies so they can be easily reached

  • Installing assistive equipment to help with lifting

  • Providing anti-fatigue floor surfaces

4) Make it easier for employees to connect with health care

Workplace musculoskeletal disorders are less likely to develop into chronic issues when they are treated early. But often, factors such as cost, proximity to care, and schedule can be barriers to care. 

Look into solutions that can help employees sidestep these issues so they can more easily get early evaluation and treatment.

Remote physical therapy (PT), for example, allows participants to work with a practitioner from wherever they are at a variety of times of the day. Studies have shown that it can achieve the same outcomes as in-person PT—or better—without its limitations, as well as offer new avenues to educate patients and facilitate behavior change toward a healthy lifestyle.

How Hinge Health can help you

Joint or muscle pain touches virtually every area of your business. Sufferers are less productive and more likely to be absent or prone to presenteeism. And with rates of new chronic pain cases soaring, already-high related healthcare costs will only continue to grow.

Hinge Health is a clinically complete MSK care approach that keeps members engaged. For everything from minor sprains to chronic pain, our care team uses advanced technology to manage member pain and remove barriers to recovery.

Studies demonstrate that our powerful, clinically validated digital MSK solution yields positive long-term outcomes and claims reductions.

There are many health issues you can’t have much of an impact on.

This isn’t one of them.

Let’s talk about how we can get to work for you.

Traditional MSK Care Is Falling Short

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