Musculoskeletal disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are conditions that affect the nerves, tendons, muscles and supporting structures, such as the discs in your back. They result from one or more of these tissues having to work harder than they're designed to.

Symptoms of back pain

Symptoms of upper limb disorders

Early stage

Intermediate stage

Late stage

Risk factors

HSE figures show that in Great Britain:

  • An estimated 553,000 workers in 2014/15 suffered from musculoskeletal disorders caused or made worse by their current or past work. Approximately 223,000 of these workers suffered from bad back, approximately 233,000 from problems related to upper limbs and neck and approximately 97,000 with lower limb problems.
  • An estimated 9.5 million working days were lost in 2014/15 through work-related musculoskeletal disorders that were caused or made worse by work.
  • On average, each person suffering took an estimated 17 days off in 2014/15. 

HSE data on the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders by occupation suggest that the rates were statistically significantly higher in skilled agricultural trades, health and social welfare associate professionals, and skilled construction and building trades.

Self-reported musculoskeletal disorders by industry estimate statistically significantly higher rates in construction, other community, social and personal service activities, and health and social work. The lowest rates of self-reported musculoskeletal disorders by industry include hotels and restaurants, and education.

Signs and symptoms: 

Symptoms of back pain

NHS Direct explains that ‘The symptom of low back pain is a pain or ache anywhere on the back, in between the bottom of the ribs and the top of the legs. The majority of cases of back pain usually clear up quite quickly. However, if you are worried or concerned about back pain, seek medical advice.’ Find out more at NHS Direct.

Symptoms of upper limb disorders

Pain is the most common symptom. Sometimes the sufferer also has joint stiffness, muscle tightness, redness and swelling of the affected area. Some people experience ‘pins and needles’, numbness, skin colour changes, and decreased sweating of the hands.

WRMSDs may progress in stages from mild to severe.

Early stage

Aching and tiredness of the affected limb occur during the work shift but disappear at night and during days off work. No reduction of work performance.

Intermediate stage

Aching and tiredness occur early in the work shift and persist at night. May also have reduced capacity for repetitive work.

Late stage

Aching, fatigue and weakness persist at rest. Inability to sleep and to perform light duties.

Not everyone goes through these stages in the same way. In fact, it may be difficult to say exactly when one stage ends and the next begins. The first pain is a signal that the muscles and tendons should rest and recover. As soon as people recognise that they have a symptom, they should immediately do something about it.

Find out more from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety and HSE.

Risk factors

Various risk factors are thought to be associated with MSDs, including:

  • repetitive and/or heavy lifting
  • bending and twisting
  • repeating an action too frequently
  • uncomfortable working position
  • exerting too much force
  • working too long without break
  • adverse working environment (eg hot or cold)
  • psychosocial factors (eg high job demands, time pressures and lack of control)
  • not receiving and acting on reports of symptoms quickly enough

Find out more from the HSE.

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