Types of Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)

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There are more than 100 different types of musculoskeletal disorders, ranging from the very common to the extremely rare. Many of these conditions share similar symptoms, such as joint or muscle pain and inflammation, but they all have their own unique symptoms also. Below you will find a an account of the two categories of MSDs - specific and non-specific -as well as examples of the most common musculoskeletal disorders.

Specific MSDs

Specific MSDs are specific and progressive rheumatic diseases which are not caused by work, but may be made worse by work, and are often handled by general practitioners and specialists not within the occupational health arena. They are clinically diagnosed conditions that progress in a broadly predictable way if untreated. They can have a significant impact on functional capacity at work and, in the long-term, participation in the labour market. Most people with these conditions require clinical interventions over a prolonged period of time and the management of these conditions for those of working age should involve the frequent and active participation of clinicians, employers and occupational health professionals.

Some specific MSDs include:

  • Osteoarthritis 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gout
  • Polymyalgia Rheumatica
  • Lupus
  • Juvenile Arthritis

Click here to visit our arthritis information section for more information on the specific MSDs mentioned above.

Non-Specific MSDs

Non-specific MSDs are episodic conditions which may frequently be caused by, or made worse by, work. They manifest themselves in different ways and may cause periods of intense discomfort and incapacity which may affect the ability of the individual worker to carry out their work. They may also abate for long periods. Many people with these conditions, never seek treatment and most recover on their own but the conditions can cause significant absence from work or lost productivity

Non-specific MSDs are described in relation to two main categories:

1. Back pain

Back pain is a very common complaint and is episodic, with half of the episodes being solved within a week and 90% going away within a month. It can be described as recurrent if several episodes occur in one year for a duration of less than six months as acute if an episode lasts for less than six weeks, as sub-acute (7-12 weeks) and as chronic if it endures for over 12 weeks. Back pain is a recurrent problem for many people, although this does not mean that symptoms will worsen. For the majority of people pain will disappear on its own within four to six weeks.

For most people the cause of back pain is unknown. It may arise from any number of pain-sensitive structures in the lumbar spinal column, including joints, ligaments, muscles, and soft tissues. Persons at high risk of low back pain include those whose jobs involve physical labour, especially lifting, pushing, or pulling heavy objects, or twisting during lifting. Another risk factor for low back pain is cigarette smoking and poor physical fitness may also contribute to it.

2. Work-related upper limb disorders

Work-related neck and upper limb disorders (WRULDs) are MSDs affecting the upper part of the body caused or aggravated by work and the working environment. WRULDs, are also commonly referred to as ‘sprains or strains’, ‘repetitive strain injuries or disorders’, or ‘cumulative trauma disorders’. Symptoms of WRULDs can present in the tendons, muscles, joints, blood vessels and/or the nerves and may include pain, discomfort, numbness, and tingling sensations in the affected area. Examples of WRULDs by body part include the following:

  • Elbow: Epicondylitis (tennis or golfer’s elbow)
  • Hand, wrist and forearm: Carpal tunnel syndrome; repetitive strain injury (RSI), de Quervain’s syndrome
  • Shoulder: Tendinitis of the shoulder
  • Neck: Neck pain

The breadth of the category of WRULDs means that almost all symptoms and impacts on work associated with MSDs are associated with WRULDs. 


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