According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, musculoskeletal disorders comprise over one-third of occupational injuries and illnesses, account for 50% of worker compensation claims, and constitute the largest job-related injury and illness problem in the United States.
MSDs are disorders of the muscle, tendon, ligament, fascia, joint, disc or nerve. The most common MSDs experienced by the work force today affect the neck, back, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, and knees. Ruptured spinal discs, tension neck syndrome, neck and rotator cuff injuries, ligament sprains, tendonitis (e.g., tennis elbow), trigger finger, and carpal tunnel syndrome are all common examples of MSDs. The widespread occurrence of MSDs in the United States costs industries billions of dollars annually in direct and indirect costs.
Typically, musculoskeletal disorders result from two types of tissue trauma--acute and cumulative. Acute trauma refers to a sudden occurrence of tissue damage, typically from exposure to force exertion that exceeds the physical capacities of a person. At the same time, the aging work force is particularly vulnerable to cumulative trauma. A cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) is a type of MSD that involves pathology resulting from a gradual process of tissue damage. Typically microscopic damage to tissues of the body occurs in response to repetitive or sustained physical activities. Such physical activities can cause interrupted blood flow, bone and joint stress, and muscle fatigue. This process initially involves small amounts of tissue damage or "microtrauma" that is typically without symptoms. As this process continues, larger amounts of tissue damage or "macrotrauma" finally result with consequential symptoms and disability.
Therefore, a CTD represents gradual "wear and tear" on the body that proceeds initially without warning to eventually become manifested by pain or other symptoms. An alternative term that describes a CTD is repetitive stress injury (RSI). Both CTD and RSI are terms often used synonymously with MSDs. Cumulative trauma processes that lead to many of the work related musculoskeletal disorders is increasingly common today as work processes become more repetitive.
Distinguishing MSDs and illnesses related to ergonomic issues from those related to lifestyle issues is essentially impossible. Causation of MSDs is typically multifactorial, related to the cumulative effect of poor ergonomics, aging, and declining physical fitness affecting the work force in the United States.
Unfortunately, declining fitness is no longer an issue primarily related to aging but is also becoming more prevalent among younger employees. The effects of a more sedentary lifestyle associated with playing computer games and eating fast foods have created a new generation of young employees who are more deconditioned and obese than ever before. Consequently, healthcare providers are now treating an increasing number of adolescent children for conditions such as diabetes and arthritis, disorders typically seen in much older people. If this trend continues, the current epidemic of MSDs among the aging baby boomer generation and its impact on the economy will pale in comparison to generations that follow.