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Musculoskeletal Disorders | Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Updated: May 6

man sitting at desk showing pain in upper neck

What are Musculoskeletal Disorders?

A musculoskeletal disorder (also known as MSD) is a condition that can affect the bones, muscles, joints and connective tissues in the body. A musculoskeletal disorder can cause serious pain, loss of function and disability that can affect independence and quality of life.

Research has shown that over 20 million people in the UK suffer from a type of musculoskeletal disorder such as back pain or arthritis. Musculoskeletal disorders can range from a short term injury to a long term condition which can reduce a person’s ability to work and participate in society.


In this Article:


How do Musculoskeletal Disorders Develop?


Musculoskeletal disorders can develop with repetitive actions at work or home that gradually wear the body down. These actions can include constantly bending down or picking up heavy objects, regular overhead work, overexertion, vibration, performing repetitive tasks, working with the neck in a chronic flexion position and more.


a doctor looking at a knee joint issue on computer

The First Three Signs of a Musculoskeletal Disorder

  1. Stiff and aching muscles One of the first signs of a musculoskeletal disorder is stiff and aching muscles after completing repetitive or exerting tasks at work. Muscles may also swell up and the injured body part may feel weaker.

  2. Tingling / numbing sensations Another sign of musculoskeletal disorder is a tingling, numbing or burning sensation in the muscles. There may also be some pain such as sharp twinges and persistent pain that causes discomfort and affects mobility or range of movement.

  3. Fatigue A common sign of a musculoskeletal disorder is feeling fatigued and weaker at work and at home. It is also known to cause sleep disruption and stress and will affect performance at work.


Causes of Musculoskeletal Disorders

There are many different causes of musculoskeletal disorders with the majority coming from repetitive actions, poor posture and overexertion at work. These causes can damage certain muscles and tendons in the body for both short and long term injuries. Here are some of the most common causes of musculoskeletal disorders:


Musculoskeletal disorders can be caused by trauma to the body. This can include bone fractures, soft tissue injuries and joint dislocations in which the body needs time to repair and recover. The management of these trauma related injuries depends on the severity of the damage with various treatments available.


When muscles or tissues are damaged, they can become inflamed and if not treated correctly can develop into a musculoskeletal disorder. Regular exercise, physiotherapy and acupuncture are common treatments that are used to reduce inflammation and repair the damaged muscle.


Some musculoskeletal disorders can occur through genetics and be hereditary conditions such as osteoarthritis, joint dysplasia and muscular dystrophy. These disorders can have a severe impact on families and affect the person’s mobility and quality of life.


One of the most common causes of musculoskeletal disorders is from overuse and repetitive action at work. This is especially common with workers who are required to perform manual handling tasks such as lifting and moving heavy objects, bending, stretching or reaching and pushing or pulling heavy loads.


multiple instances of joint pain

The 5 Most Common Forms of Musculoskeletal Disorders

There are different types of musculoskeletal disorders depending on the type of work that is carried out and the injury. Here are the different types of musculoskeletal disorders:


Arthritis is the most common musculoskeletal disorder and occurs when two joints rub together once the cartilage that usually covers the ends of the bones has broken down. This can cause stiffness of the joints, reduced range of motion and inflammation. It is most commonly found in the hands, shoulder, hips, spine and knees and can be very painful for many people.


Osteoporosis is a musculoskeletal disorder which weakens the bones in the body and makes them more fragile to breaks and fractures. For most people, osteoporosis is not painful until a bone is broken but then long term pain can occur during recovery. There is bone strengthening medicine that is used as treatment.


Tendonitis is when the muscles or joints are inflamed. The tendons are thick cords that attach muscles to bones and tendonitis can cause pain, stiffness and strained movement. Tendonitis can be treated by avoiding moving the joint, painkillers and physiotherapy.


In the body, there are sacs called bursae that are filled with fluid to cushion the muscles and bones around the joints. In bursitis, the bursae become inflamed and cause joint pain, most commonly around the hips, shoulders and elbows. Bursitis can be treated with rest, ice packs and painkillers and should improve in a few weeks.


Fibromyalgia is a long term condition that causes musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, headaches tenderness and other symptoms which can affect quality of life. It is difficult to treat but there are various therapies, medication and lifestyle improvements that can be made to reduce the symptoms of the condition.


4 Symptoms of Musculoskeletal Disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders have various symptoms that affect the body, its mobility and strength. These are the most common symptoms:


Pain is the most common symptom of a musculoskeletal disorder as the muscles, bones and joints are affected and the damage can cause discomfort and pain. Depending on the severity of the injury, it can be treated with painkillers and rest or physiotherapy may also be required.


Swelling can also be caused by a musculoskeletal disorder that irritates the muscle or joints and becomes inflamed. This can increase feelings of numbness or stiffness and can also reduce mobility in the joints.


Stiffness of the limbs and joints is another common symptom of a musculoskeletal disorder and it can affect the mobility of the body and cause pain when trying to move.

Limited Range of Movement 

Another common symptom is the reduced range of movement due to the pain and stiffness in the body caused by the musculoskeletal disorder. Depending on the severity of the disorder, this can affect a person’s independence and quality of life.


diagnosing knee pain at physiotherapy


Musculoskeletal disorders can be diagnosed using various tests and it is also beneficial talking to a health care professional about certain symptoms and medical history. These are the tests that will be performed to try and diagnose the problem:

Physical Examination

A doctor or other health care professional will assess the patient’s general health, joints and reflexes. If there is a particularly painful area, the doctor will aim to find the source of the pain and the affected area. This is often the first step before tests are performed to confirm the diagnosis.

Imaging Tests 

Specialist imaging tests such as X-rays and MRI scans are also used to assess the body. The doctors are able to look closely at the bones, cartilage loss, joint problems and any damage that only these images can show before the condition develops.

These imaging tests are able to help determine which musculoskeletal disorder the patient has as the doctors are provided with a clearer picture on what is happening in the body.

Blood Tests

Blood tests may also be required to help eliminate any other conditions which could be the cause of the mentioned symptoms. Blood tests can discover when inflammation is present, however inflammation is a symptom of many conditions and so alone the blood test doesn’t establish a diagnosis of a musculoskeletal disorder.

The creatine kinase levels in the blood increase when there is ongoing destruction of a muscle which can be detected by a blood test and is a sign of a musculoskeletal disorder.



There is a range of different treatments available for musculoskeletal disorders depending on the type of disorder and the severity of it. Here are some common treatments that can help manage the pain and improve the condition:



Many musculoskeletal disorders can be treated or at least can manage the pain levels with painkillers. These can be over the counter pills or stronger prescription painkillers depending on the type of disorder and how much pain the person is in.


Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is another common treatment for certain musculoskeletal disorders as it helps to reduce pain, improve mobility and range of movement, increase muscle strength and improve flexibility. Also known as rehabilitation which includes various exercises, patients will receive a personalised therapy programme that is unique to their disorder, pain level and age.



Some musculoskeletal disorders can be treated with surgery. Disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and others are able to have surgery performed to treat or manage the symptoms such as pain levels and mobility. The surgery provides support and stability for the body and aims to improve the condition.


Lifestyle Changes

Another effective treatment for certain musculoskeletal disorders is changing lifestyles. This can include more exercise and physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, stop smoking and much more which can all contribute to treating and improving various disorders.


stretching to prevent musculoskeletal disorder


Some musculoskeletal disorders can be prevented if people avoid certain or repetitive tasks at work, regularly exercise or change their habits and lifestyle. Here are some key ways which they can be prevented:


Regular exercise and physical activity has been proven to reduce and even prevent many musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis, back pain and bone fractures. Maintaining a healthy weight and strengthening bones and muscles effectively reduces the risk of deteriorating muscles and it also improves flexibility and overall fitness.


Workplace ergonomics are essential to help prevent the risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Ergonomics is designed to reduce injuries at work by providing a comfortable working area with everything within reach, good posture if sitting at a desk all day and the reduction of repetitive tasks.

The workplace environment can have a huge impact on the body and can increase risk of musculoskeletal disorders if ergonomic measures aren’t put into place to protect the workers and their bodies from overexertion, heavy lifting and stretching to reach objects.

Employers have the responsibility to ensure their workers are always safe and comfortable at work to help prevent the risk of a musculoskeletal condition.

Healthy Diet

A healthy diet is also very important in reducing the risk of a musculoskeletal disorder as the consumption of protein, nutrients, vitamins and minerals are ideal for bone strength and helping to prevent breaks and fractures that are common with osteoporosis.

Along with a healthy diet, a healthy weight is also important as it will reduce the strain on the body and muscles and strengthen the bones in the musculoskeletal system. People who are overweight are advised to focus on eating healthier and losing weight to improve their strength and reduce the risk of a musculoskeletal disorder.


Employers Responsibilities

Employers also have a responsibility to keep their employees safe and protected at work. Risk assessments should be regularly performed in order to ensure certain tasks are safe for the workers and all the risks and hazards have been significantly reduced or completely eliminated.

It is important that employers protect their workers from the risks of developing a musculoskeletal disorder. There are certain measures that can be put into place to help minimise the risks but not all musculoskeletal disorders can be prevented and so first steps in reporting and receiving treatment and rehabilitation are essential.


an msd support group

Support and Resources

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides an array of helpful resources to help reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders developing at work with regulations on manual handling, workplace ergonomics and general workplace health, safety and welfare.

Employers also have a responsibility to keep their employees safe and protected at work. Risk assessments should be regularly performed in order to ensure certain tasks are safe for the workers and all the risks and hazards have been significantly reduced or completely eliminated.

Here are some ways in which people can be supported and the resources that are available:

Support Groups

There are many different types of support groups for people living with musculoskeletal disorders with support and resources also available to help the family. Support groups such as:

  • AMRA – The Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance

  • Musculoskeletal Disorders Research Advisory Group

  • Arthritis Action

  • MSK Health SIG

All of these support and research groups are focused on providing information and support to people living with musculoskeletal disorders as well as continually researching and promoting healthy lifestyles.

Online Communities

There are various online communities available in the UK that provide virtual support and the ability to communicate with others who have the same condition. Talking about the problems faced and listening to others can be a huge help mentally and it also makes people feel less alone with what they are going through when sharing their thoughts and feelings with others in a similar situation.

Musculoskeletal disorders are very common conditions that can occur in the workplace when workers have to perform repetitive tasks, overexert themselves and perform a variety of manual handling tasks. There should be certain safety measures implemented to reduce the risk of strains, falls that cause broken bones and repetitive injuries to always keep workers safe.


Frequently Asked Questions

What does Musculoskeletal Pain feel like?

Is Musculoskeletal Pain a Disability?

How do you test for Musculoskeletal Disorders?

How long does Musculoskeletal Pain last?

Can you work with a Musculoskeletal Disorder?

What blood tests can be done to identify musculoskeletal pain?

a link to a manual handling training course



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