Musculoskeletal Disorders — Risk Factors and MSD Treatment

Computer worker wearing a neck brace
Computer worker wearing a neck brace. Andreas Schlege/Getty Images

If you've injured your neck or back on the job, you've likely experienced a musculoskeletal disorder. A musculoskeletal disorder, often called MSD for short, is defined as a problem that occurs at work (even if it takes a while to develop) that affects your nerves, muscles and/or tendons.

The CDC reports on OSHA's (OSHA is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) take on MSDs, saying that MSDs are one the biggest contributors to lost work time on the part of employees (a median of 8 days in 2001, they say.) The same is true, they say, for work place injuries and illnesses.

In 2011, about 1/3 of all worker injury and illness cases were musculoskeletal disorders, according to OSHA.

So how does your work make your back or other joints hurt? In particular, the CDC says, OSHA points to the work environment and your performance in it. The agency says that environmental conditions can greatly add to an existing problem such as a sprain, muscle strain or tear or carpal tunnel syndrome, or, it can cause the issue to persist over time.

Here is a list of common spine related musculoskeletal disorders.  


MSD Risk Factor Exposures

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) goes a step further by distinguishing an MSD as a bodily reaction and not the result of a slip, fall or trip, the CDC says.

What do they mean by this? Isn't a fall a reaction? 

Not quite.

The BLS counts bending, climbing, crawling, reaching and twisting as bodily reactions.  

Along with bodily reactions, the BLS includes overexertion and repetitive motion (for example, typing all day) as "exposures" that lead to musculoskeletal disorders. In ergonomic terms, you are said to be "exposed" to risk factors for work related musculoskeletal disorders when your job requires that you lift heavy items, bend, reach, push or pull heavy loads and the like (mentioned above.) Exposures are also called "hazards."

Another way to exposure yourself to the development of an MSD is by assuming non-neutral (also called "awkward") body postures as you work. As an example, if your monitor is placed a bit off to one side, this may mean your neck stays in a twisted position for the entire day, and possibly setting up the conditions for a neck problem.

A study from India identified risk factors that could possible cause or contribute to MSDs. Some of their findings dovetail with the "official" risk factors set forth by OSHA and other government agencies; those that didn't make the lists give pause for thought.

Overall, the study found that heavy physical work, smoking, high body mass index (i.e., being obese,) having other health issues and/or stressful work demands increased employee risk for MSDs.

As far as body and spine related MSDs go, the study authors found "at least reasonable evidence" for repetitive motion, awkward body posture and heavy lifting as risk factors.  

The "official" list of exposure to injury risk at work (as per OSHA and other agencies) is as follows:

  • Excessive force, which relates to lifting heavy objects, pulling and pushing and similar bodily reactions.
  • Repetition, for example typing all day or certain kinds of factory work, etc.
  • Awkward positioning, which may occur as a result of poor workstation set up.
  • Cold.
  • Vibration (think jackhammer operator.)
  • Or, a combination of any of the above.

All in all, the risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder will likely depend on your positioning and posture on a daily basis, if you have to repeat certain tasks (and how frequently in one unit of time,) how long the task lasts and how much effort is required by you to get it done.

What Should You do if You get An MSD At Work?

The good news is that work-related MSDs can be prevented, according to OSHA. By applying the principles of ergonomics, which is about fitting the job to the worker (rather than the other way around), you may be able to avoid or minimize muscle fatigue or otherwise reduce both the number and the severity of work related MSD's, they say.

MSD Treatments

Work-related MSDs that require medical treatment beyond first aid, assignment to a light-duty job, or that cause MSD-related symptoms lasting a week or longer, are called MSD incidents. If you have an MSD incident, you should report it to your employer. Employers are required by law to take your report seriously, in most cases to provide the appropriate medical attention, and to not seek retribution because you spoke up.  


da Costa, B., Vierira, E. Am J Ind Med. March 2010. Risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders: A systematic review of recent longitudinal studies.

Ergonomics Program. Proposed Rules. Federal Register #64:65768-66078 Standard # 1910. November 23 1999.

Identify Problems. Safety and Health Topics. OSHA website.

Prevention of Muscleskeletal Disorders in the Workplace. Ergonomics. website.

Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders & Ergonomics. Workplace Health Promotion. CDC website.