Co-funded by the
Erasmus+ Programme
of the European Union

What is a musculoskeletal disorder? 18.10.2017

sore backMusculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the most common work-related ailments. Throughout Europe, they affect millions of workers and cost employers billions of euros. Tackling MSDs helps improve the lives of workers, but it also makes good business sense.

Typically, MSDs affect the back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs; less often they affect the lower limbs.

Health problems range from discomfort, minor aches and pains, to more serious medical conditions requiring time off work and even medical treatment. In more chronic cases, treatment and recovery are often unsatisfactory - the result could be permanent disability and loss of employment.



Parts of the Body Affected by MSDs:

  • Arms
  • Back
  • Hands
  • Wrists
  • Fingers
  • Legs
  • Neck
  • Shoulders

Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs)

The MSDs do not appear suddenly; they develop over time when bad work habits or job conditions occur. The most relevant causes of MSDs related to work activities are (EU-OSHA, 2017):

  • Handling loads, especially when bending and twisting
  • Repetitive or forceful movements
  • Awkward and static posturesMSD 2
  • Vibration, poor lighting or cold working environments
  • Fast-paced work
  • Prolonged sitting or standing in the same position

They can also result from accidents, e.g. fractures and dislocations.

MSDs cases are increasingly linked with psychosocial risk factors in combination with physical job demands, such as (EU-OSHA, 2017):

  • High demand of work or low autonomy
  • Low job satisfaction

Risk factors

Different groups of factors may contribute to MSDs, including physical and biomechanical factors, organizational and psychosocial factors, individual and personal factors.

Physical factors:

  • Force application, e.g. lifting, carrying, pulling, pushing, use of tools
  • Repetition of movements
  • Awkward and static postures, e.g. with hands above shoulder level, or prolonged standing and sitting
  • Local compression of tools and surfaces
  • Vibrations
  • Cold or excessive heat
  • Poor lighting, e.g. can cause an accident
  • High noise levels, e.g. causing the body to tense

Organisational and psychosocial factors:

  • Demanding work, lack of control over the tasks performed, and low levels of autonomy
  • Low levels of job satisfaction
  • Repetitive, monotonous work, at a high pace
  • Lack of support from colleagues, supervisors and managers

Individual factors:

  • Prior medical history
  • Physical capacity
  • Age
  • Obesity
  • Smoking

(EU-OSHA, Publications, Factsheet 71 - Introduction to work-related musculoskeletal disorders)


Preventive actions could include changes to:

Workplace layout: adapt the layout to improve working postures;

Equipment: make sure it is ergonomically designed and suitable for tasks;

Workers: improve risk awareness, provide training in good work methods;

Tasks: change working methods or tools;

Management: plan work to avoid repetitive work or prolonged work in poor postures. Plan rest breaks, rotate jobs or reallocate work;

Organisational factors: develop an MSD policy;

Health monitoring, health promotion and rehabilitation and reintegration of workers already suffering from MSDs also need to be considered in the management approach to MSDs.