What is MSD and What Causes it?

Musculoskeletal Disorders are a commonly and costly problem for people and companies across the United States. MSDs contribute to the largest category of workplace injuries

US companies spend 50 billion dollars on direct costs of MSDs in 2011. That does not include the indirect costs of MSDs which can be up to five times the direct costs of MSDs. Also, the average MSD case comes with a direct cost of almost $15,000.

We can further look into the costs of MSDs, but we should focus on how to prevent MSD cases.

In order to do that we need to take a deep dive to understand what MSDs are and what causes them. With this knowledge, we'll be able to allocate your time, attention, and resources most effectively to prevent MSDs.

Defining Musculoskeletal Disorder

Musculoskeletal disorders are injuries and disorders that affect the human body's movement or musculoskeletal system.

Examples include:

-Carpal tunnel syndrome


-Muscle/tendon strain

-Ligament sprain

-Tension neck Syndrome

-Thoracic outlet compression

-Rotator cuff tendonitis


-Radial tunnel syndrome

-Digital neuritis

-Trigger finger/thumb

-DeQuervain's syndrome

-Mechanical back syndrome

-Degenerative disc disease

-Ruptured/Herniated disc.

All of these can fall under musculoskeletal disorder because the term accurately describes the problem. That is a repetitive motion injury, repetitive stress injury, or overuse injury. Musculoskeletal disorder is used instead of the former terms because MSD puts emphasis on repetition and stress. This is different from a singular cause of damage to the body which is limiting in pointing out the risk factors leading to MSDs.

What are MSD Risk Factors?

When a worker is exposed to MSD risk factors, they begin to fatigue. When this fatigue occurs, their body's recovery system, they develop a musculoskeletal imbalance. Over time, fatigue outruns recovery and the musculoskeletal imbalance persists, and MSD develops.

The risk factors fall under two categories. They are work-related ergonomic and individual risk factors.

Work-related Risk Factors

Workplace design plays a crucial role in the development of an MSD.

When a worker is asked to do work that is outside his body’s capabilities and limitations, he is being asked to put his musculoskeletal system at risk. In these situations, an objective evaluation of the workstation design tells us the worker’s recovery system will not be able to keep up with the fatigue that will be caused by performing the job. The evaluation will tell us that ergonomic risk factors are present, the worker is at risk of developing a musculoskeletal imbalance and a musculoskeletal disorder is an imminent reality.

Three primary ergonomic risk factors are:

-High task repetition: Many work tasks and cycles are repetitive in nature, and are frequently controlled by hourly or daily production targets and work processes. High task repetition, when combined with other risks factors such high force and/or awkward postures, can contribute to the formation of MSD. A job is considered highly repetitive if the cycle time is 30 seconds or less.

-Forceful exertions. Many work tasks require high force loads on the human body. Muscle effort increases in response to high force requirements, increasing associated fatigue which can lead to MSD.

-Repetitive or sustained awkward postures. Awkward postures place excessive force on joints and overload the muscles and tendons around the effected joint. Joints of the body are most efficient when they operate closest to the mid-range motion of the joint. Risk of MSD is increased when joints are worked outside of this mid-range repetitively or for sustained periods of time without adequate recovery time.

Exposure to these workplace risk factors puts workers at a higher level of MSD risk. Its common sense: high task repetition, forceful exertions and repetitive/sustained awkward postures fatigue the worker’s body beyond their ability to recover, leading to a musculoskeletal imbalance and eventually an MSD.

Individual-related Risk Factors

Human beings are multi-dimensional. Limiting ourselves to a singular cause of MSDs will limit our ability to create a prevention strategy that addresses the multi-dimensional worker.

We need to address both workplace risk factors and individual risk factors.

Individual risk factors include:

-Poor work practices: Workers who use poor work practices, body mechanics and lifting techniques are introducing unnecessary risk factors that can contribute to MSDs. These poor practices create unnecessary stress on their bodies that increases fatigue and decreases their body’s ability to properly recover.

-Poor overall health habits. Workers who smoke, drink excessively, are obese, or exhibit numerous other poor health habits are putting themselves at risk for not only musculoskeletal disorders, but also for other chronic diseases that will shorten their life and health span.

-Poor rest and recovery. MSDs develop when fatigue outruns the workers recovery system, causing a musculoskeletal imbalance. Workers who do not get adequate rest and recovery put themselves at higher risk.

-Poor nutrition, fitness and hydration. For a country as developed as the United States, an alarming number of people are malnourished, dehydrated and at such a poor level of physical fitness that climbing one flight of stairs puts many people out of breath. Workers who do not take care of their bodies are putting themselves at a higher risk of developing musculoskeletal and chronic health problems.

Exposure to these individual risk factors puts workers at a higher level of MSD risk. Just like workplace risk factors, individual risk factors are common sense: when a worker uses poor work practice, has bad health habits, doesn’t get adequate rest and recovery and doesn’t take care of their bodies with a good nutrition and fitness regimen, they are at greater risk for fatigue to outrun their recovery system. Having a poor overall health profile puts them at greater risk of developing a musculoskeletal imbalance and eventually an MSD.

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