A sharp or nagging pain in your back, swelling or numbness in your arm, loss of joint movement and strength are all signs of musculoskeletal disorders – injuries that affect your muscles, bones, joints, nerves, blood vessels, tendons and other soft tissues.
They can result from a single incident such as a bone fracture or a sprain but more often, musculoskeletal injuries develop gradually over time due to repetitive strain on your body’s muscles, tendons or nerves. They can affect your neck, shoulders, wrists, back, hips, legs, knees and feet.
A mild strain or sprain may be a temporary inconvenience but other conditions are more serious and can affect your ability to perform daily activities.
One in 10 Canadian adults experiences a musculoskeletal disorder serious enough to limit basic movements and routine activities.
Common musculoskeletal disorders include:
- repetitive strain injury
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- torn rotator cuff
- lower back strain
- trigger finger
- degenerative disc disease
- herniated discs
Symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders include:
- recurrent pain
- stiff joints
- reduced range of motion
- dull aches
Risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders
Age: The risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder increases with age because your muscles, bones and joints naturally deteriorate as you get older, but it is not inevitable.
Occupation: The majority of musculoskeletal injuries are caused by work-related activity. Repetition, rapid work pace, awkward positions, forceful movements, vibration, cold temperatures, occupational stress and too little recovery time from physical labour are the primary causes.
Activity level: Certain types of activities can cause wear and tear on your musculoskeletal system: frequent sports training; sitting in the same position at a computer every day; repetitive motions; lifting weights; and poor posture.
Lifestyle: Poor health and nutrition increase your risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle are all contributing factors.
Family history: Genetics can play a role in your risk for developing a musculoskeletal disorder.
How to prevent musculoskeletal disorders
A healthy diet and regular exercise are vital to reducing the risk of a musculoskeletal disorder. Strengthening exercises and stretching can help keep your bones, joints and muscles strong. Maintain good posture, be careful when lifting heavy objects, and try to keep repetitive motions to a minimum, whether you’re at home, at work or at the gym.
If you have minor aches and pains but do not have a major musculoskeletal injury, here are some ways to reduce your risk of injury:
Know your limits
Muscle fatigue could cause serious damage. If a task is too much for your body to handle, get help or have someone else do it. Alternatively, break the task into many small increments, spaced apart with a number of short breaks.
Modify repetitive motions
If your work involves highly repetitive motions, try to vary your motions even slightly to reduce the risk of weakening your muscles and joints. If you’re sitting at a computer all day, take a break every hour. Try to avoid sitting in the same position for more than 30 minutes.
Maintain proper posture
Good posture involves training your body to stand, walk, sit and lie in positions that reduce the strain on muscles and ligaments during movement and weight-bearing activities. Bend your knees and hips, not your back, when lifting heavy objects. Sit with your knees and hips level and keep your feet flat on the floor.
Get an ergonomic assessment
Some employers offer ergonomic assessments to evaluate working conditions, identify risk factors and recommend solutions to prevent injuries. Find out if this is available in your workplace. You can also apply ergonomic solutions at home.
Practise a healthy lifestyle
Eat a healthy diet, drink lots of water, exercise daily, take short walks and try to get enough sleep. Drink alcohol in moderation and don’t smoke.
Speak to your doctor
Talk to your doctor for more information about maintaining a healthy musculoskeletal system and reducing your risk of injury. If you have any symptoms, early diagnosis and treatment may help.
- Workers Health and Safety Centre Federation of Ontario: https://www.whsc.on.ca/Files/Events/Case-for-Musculoskeletal-Disorder-Prevention
- Chiro-Med Rehab Centre: https://www.chiro-med.ca/common-musculoskeletal-injuries-and-how-to-avoid-them/
- Cleveland Clinic: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/4485-back-health–posture