Musculoskeletal disorders refer to a group of injuries and conditions impacting the body’s muscles, nerves, connective tissues, spinal discs, and joints. Most individuals experience some type of musculoskeletal disorder at one point in their life or another and often multiple times. Common examples of musculoskeletal conditions include a sprained ankle, osteoarthritis of the knee and a lumbar disc bulge. So, let’s examine this topic a little bit further. How can you limit your risk of musculoskeletal disorders? And what can you do when they happen?

Musculoskeletal Disorder Symptoms

Since the term “musculoskeletal disorder” covers a broad range of disorders, injuries, and conditions, many different symptoms might arise. The most common symptoms include:

  • Joint pain
  • Tenderness
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Inflammation
  • Muscle spasms or cramps
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Aching
  • Stiffness
  • Burning sensations
  • Pain that increases with activity

However, it’s important to note that these symptoms may vary depending on your specific situation. For instance, arthritis is usually associated with joint pain, inflammation, and reduced range of motion. Meanwhile, piriformis syndrome is linked to muscle spasms and pain when performing certain activities, such as walking up the stairs.

Some other common musculoskeletal conditions include:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Fractures
  • Muscle strain
  • Joint sprain
  • Tendonitis
  • Bursitis
  • Back and neck pain

Musculoskeletal disorders also have various causes, including:

  • Overuse
  • Poor posture
  • Trauma
  • A previous injury
  • Wear and tear

Additionally, musculoskeletal conditions tend to fall within two categories: acute or chronic. Acute conditions refer to sudden or severe injuries or conditions, such as a broken bone or a sprained ankle. On the other hand, chronic conditions refer to more long-lasting situations, such as arthritis, where ongoing pain management is vital for an active, healthy, and happy life.

So, how is a diagnosis determined? If you’re experiencing acute or chronic pain, what should you expect?

A diagnosis involves a visit to your healthcare provider. This visit consists of an examination of your pain source and the affected area. Additionally, your healthcare provider will ask questions regarding what happened and your specific symptoms.

Common questions your physiotherapist might ask include:

  • How long has the pain been happening?
  • Did it commence due to a particular incident?
  • What relieves it or makes it feel better?
  • What activities make it feel worse?

From here, your physiotherapist will conduct a thorough physical examination which will often establish the diagnosis and cause of the problem. In some circumstances, you may require more testing to get to the bottom of things such as blood testing, CT scans, MRIs, or X-rays.

Ergonomic Injuries

Surprisingly, you don’t have to participate in a physical activity sport for a musculoskeletal disorder to occur. You could simply sit at your desk all day only to be met with pain and a limited range of motion. These are known as ergonomic or workplace injuries.

But what is ergonomics? Ergonomics refers to the efficiency of an individuals’ work environment and their sitting posture. Good ergonomics means your body is exposed to less stress and strain as you work at a desk. Essentially, this means you have a more productive workspace, and you face fewer discomforts throughout your workday.

At the same time, ergonomics doesn’t just apply to an office worker. Proper ergonomics is also associated with proper lifting techniques.

For example, back pain is a common workplace injury due to poor lifting posture. For proper lifting technique, you’re supposed to squat down with a straight back, keeping the object close to your body and lifting through your feet. This technique helps avoid placing strain on your lower back.

Additionally, working at a desk all day with poor posture or even poor mouse placement can lead to various injuries and pain. An improper mouse setup might cause carpal tunnel syndrome or wrist strain. A poor sitting posture might lead to neck and shoulder pain.

The goal of ergonomics is to limit and decrease these injuries. Other common workplace injuries include:

  • Tendonitis
  • Rotator cuff syndrome
  • Trigger finger
  • Epicondylitis
  • Muscle strains
  • Nerve impingement

Many times, these injuries come on gradually. They might start as an ache or an on-and-off pain. Yet, as time goes on and as the issue goes uncorrected, the pain worsens.

A word to wise: Whenever pain happens, it’s essential to rest, determine the cause, and fix the problem. For example, if you have shoulder pain from sitting at your desk, you might want to consider setting an alarm at regular intervals triggering you to fix your posture. You also might want to take frequent breaks (in fact, this is encouraged for most activities, including sedentary behaviours).

If you’re doing anything for 30-40 hours a week or more, you’ll want to be setting yourself up for success. Diving into proper ergonomics regarding your workspace or station can help in leaps and bounds, preventing musculoskeletal disorders down the road.

Pain Management Strategies

So, what should you do when pain happens?

In most cases, you’ll want to rest. Pushing through pain is never recommended. Some pain management strategies you may want to use include the following.

Heat and Cold Treatment

Use hot and cold therapy as your go-to when pain occurs. Usually, applying a cold pack is recommended initially to help ease the pain. Depending on your injury or condition, you may also want to use heat. Heat is especially useful when tight or spastic muscles are involved.

In both cases of cold and heat treatment, you’ll want to place a cloth in between your skin and the heat or cold pack. This protects your skin from any damage. Leave the ice or hot pack on for 15 minutes and use it at least two to three times a day.

Basic Strengthening Exercises

Once the pain begins to dissipate, prevention is the next line of defence. Strengthening around the injured area can help you bounce back and avoid recurring and chronic injuries. Additionally, for chronic conditions, such exercises can help manage your pain. Research shows physical activity and exercise programs may reduce the severity of a person’s pain.

This often means doing these exercises regularly, such as a couple or a few times a week for chronic conditions. For example, an individual with knee osteoarthritis (a form of wear and tear arthritis) might focus on strengthening the calves, quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings to help support the knee joint.

Further, aging individuals may need to focus on strength training regularly since muscle mass naturally declines after the age of 30. This occurrence means it takes more work to maintain. However, doing so is entirely worthwhile, especially when it can help you thwart pain.

Stretches

Stretches may help improve the range of motion and alleviate muscle tightness associated with musculoskeletal disorders.

For instance, a tight hamstring might contribute to low back pain. This means regular stretching of the hamstring muscle can help alleviate these imbalances, helping you manage your pain.

Another example here is how tight chest muscles might pull the shoulders forward. Stretching of the chest, alongside strengthening exercises for the upper back and shoulders, can help address this issue.

Stress Reduction

Pain, especially chronic pain, can easily be aggravated by increased stress in your life. Studies show a link between increased pain and increased stress levels. Thus, managing your stress is essential when it comes to addressing your pain and corresponding symptoms.

Some stress reduction techniques that may help include:

Meditation
Deep breathing
Progressive relaxation
Talking to a friend
Stretching
Massage
Music or art therapy

Diet

Think of your diet as the foundation of your health. Your body can only do so much based on what you give it. And unfortunately, the modern western diet is loaded with high-calorie and processed food items. This means that a lot of people are actually quite nutrient-deficient. In some situations, this is driving the obesity epidemic, as well as other health issues.

In a 2020 scientific review, seven out of nine studies examined showed how diet can significantly impact pain levels. This review indicated that plant-based diets might even have the most pain-relieving effects on musculoskeletal disorders.

Inevitably, this is very person-dependant. Generally, with your diet, you’ll want to find out what foods work for you and your body. If you’re unsure how to go about this, consulting with our dietitian can help guide you in the right direction.

Ergonomics in the Workplace

In an ideal world, every workplace would focus on preventing these musculoskeletal disorders, and a lot already do!

However, many companies leave this up to the individual employee. As such, some ergonomic adjustments you might want to consider include:

  • Investing in a standing desk – This can offer your body a break by allowing you to alternate between standing and sitting throughout your workday.
  • Taking regular stretch breaks – The human body isn’t made to sit all day. Thus, taking a break every hour or two to stretch can work wonders, preventing strain and encouraging blood flow.
  • Assessing your workstation from an ergonomic standpoint – This means setting your workspace up for success. For example, you’ll want to have your screen at eye level to avoid strain on your neck. The position of your keyboard and mouse also matters, as does the type of chair you use and how you sit.
  • Reducing repetitive tasks – If you can space this type of work throughout your day, you’ll be less likely to face strain caused by overuse. If this is unavoidable, you’ll want to take plenty of breaks.
  • Starting a workplace health and safety committee – Most workplaces already have these, but now is the time to start if yours doesn’t. Consider making a binder outlining proper lifting or sitting techniques (whatever is suitable for your workplace) and then having regular meetings or check-ins to ensure your co-workers or employees follow the set guidelines.

Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy

If your pain persists or increases, you likely want to enlist professional help. A physiotherapist is an expert when it comes to the body and human movement.

At your first visit with a physiotherapist, they will perform a thorough assessment so that they can determine how best to help you and your pain. From there, your treatment may involve:

  • Manual therapy – May include traction, massage, trigger point therapy, active release, and more.
  • Prescribed exercises – Usually, this is a combination of stretches and strengthening exercises, depending on where you are in your recovery and your pain levels.
  • Education – Your physio will educate you regarding your condition and help you find ways to prevent the issue from arising again.
  • Other modalities – Depending on your physiotherapist, other modalities may include electric muscle stimulation, dry needling, and more.

All of these treatments help you bounce back stronger after injury and pain, ensuring you can return to your regular activities or work without setbacks.

Sometimes, musculoskeletal disorders are unavoidable, no matter how much you try to prevent them. Luckily, there are tons of options you can use to address your pain. And if you’re having trouble doing so on your own, a musculoskeletal physiotherapist can always help, guiding you toward a pain-free and healthier life.

We support the NDIS

Holly Clayton

Physiotherapist

Holly graduated with a Doctor of Physiotherapy with Distinction from The University of Melbourne. Prior to this she completed a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science (majoring in Exercise Physiology) at Deakin University. From her education, she has attained a wealth of knowledge and experience in numerous clinical settings including, musculoskeletal, orthopaedic, paediatrics and geriatrics.