Institute for Work & Health >> Briefing
What are work-related musculoskeletal disorders?
“Work-related musculoskeletal disorder” (MSD) is the term used to describe a painful or disabling
injury to the muscles, tendons or nerves caused or aggravated by work. (Back pain is usually–
but not always–regarded as a separate condition.)
Most work-related MSDs affect the hands, wrists, elbows, neck, and shoulders, but can also
occur in the legs, hips, ankles and feet. Such soft tissue injuries can be non-specific–that is, the
symptoms are generalized pain, weakness or discomfort. However, in some cases the symptoms
develop in to specific disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome.
How common are work-related MSDs?
“No one really knows,” says Institute for Work & Health scientist Dr. Donald Cole, an occupation-
al and community medicine specialist and expert in workplace interventions to prevent and
reduce MSDs. “But unlike 50 years ago, when traumatic injuries were dominant, disabling
injuries of the back and upper extremities associated with overexertion and overuse now
constitute the majority of all work-related injuries.”
• MSDs (including back pain) account for up to 70 per cent of all claims made by workers
to the Ontario Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB). Almost half are due to
non-traumatic causes like carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis.
• In one survey of 1,200 office workers, 60 per cent reported experiencing some neck or
upper-limb pain in the previous year; 20 per cent reported moderate-to-severe upper-limb
pain that recurred at least monthly or lasted more than a week. More than half believed
their symptoms were aggravated by work to some extent.
• A 1998 survey found that musculoskeletal disorders were the main cause of disability in
Quebec. One in four workers reported pain in the lower back that disrupted their normal
activities “quite often or all the time.” About 20 per cent reported pain in the upper limbs;
ten per cent reported neck pain.
These statistics likely underestimate the true ext