Musculoskeletal Disorders

Written by Kristeen Cherney
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 18, 2013

What Are Musculoskeletal Disorders?

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) consist of minor physical disabilities. This term is used to describe a variety of conditions that affect the muscles, bones, and joints. The severity of the MSD can vary. Pain and discomfort may interfere with everyday activities. MSDs are extremely common, and your risk increases with age. Early diagnosis is the key to ease pain while potentially decreasing further bodily damage.

Types of MSDs

MSDs can affect all major areas of the body, including the:

Given the different areas of the body that make up the musculoskeletal system, several other diseases can produce significant musculoskeletal signs and symptoms.  These other disorders include:

  • low back pain
  • fibromyalgia
  • gout
  • osteoarthritis
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • tendinitis

Some of these disorders can cause mild discomfort to debilitating pain. Low back pain is the most common MSD.

What Causes MSDs?

MSDs have a range of causes. The exact cause depends on your:

  • age
  • occupation
  • activity level
  • lifestyle

Certain types of activities can cause wear and tear overtime, which may lead to these types of disorders. Just as frequent sports training can wear down a certain part of the body, so can sitting down in the same position at a computer every day. Poor posture and lack of stretching can worsen the effects of these types of activities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following professions experienced more musculoskeletal problems than average in 2007:

  • attendants
  • delivery truck drivers
  • freight handlers
  • laborers
  • nursing aides
  • orderlies (BLS, 2008)

MSDs also increase with age. For this reason, many people believe that age directly causes these types of conditions. Muscles, bones, and joints naturally break down with age, but getting old doesn’t mean you’ll automatically develop related medical disorders. In fact, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), low back pain typically starts affecting adults in their 30s and 40s (NIAMS, 2012). By taking care of your body throughout adulthood, you can potentially decrease your risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders as you age.

What Are the Symptoms of MSDs?

Symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders can hamper everyday tasks, such as walking. You may notice you have limited range of motion, as well as difficulties accomplishing your favorite activities. Call your doctor if you experience:

  • recurrent pain
  • stiff, painful joints
  • swelling
  • dull aches

Diagnosing MSDs

A doctor’s visit is required to pinpoint the exact causes of your pain and discomfort. First, your physician will perform a physical exam to test your muscles for any weaknesses or atrophy. Unusual reflexes may indicate nerve damage. Swelling and redness may be signs of the forms of arthritis: gout, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

If bone fractures are suspected, your doctor will likely order X-rays to get a better look at the bones. X-rays may also indicate areas of increasing bone loss. Blood tests may be used to investigate rheumatic diseases.

Treating MSDs

Treating musculoskeletal disorders depends on the severity of your condition. Occasional pain may be addressed with exercises as well as over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Never take these medicines without a doctor’s approval.

Advanced disorders may require different treatment approaches. Physical therapy and occupational therapy can help you learn techniques to manage pain and discomfort during everyday activities. Prescription medications may also be required to help reduce inflammation and pain.

Preventing MSDs

Preventive measures are the best ways to help prevent MSDs. These disorders aren’t common during young adulthood, but your risk increases with age. This is why it is crucial to change your lifestyle habits now to help avoid potential pain later. Regular strengthening exercises and stretching can help keep bones, joints, and muscles strong. Also take care in the ways in which you complete everyday activities. Maintain a tall posture to prevent back pain and be careful when picking up heavy objects.

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