In the United Kingdom, almost 19 million people are living with musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis or back pain. These conditions account for as much as 22% of ill health in the country with the most common problems being with the neck and lower back.
Worldwide, approximately 1.7 billion people are living with musculoskeletal conditions. Of these, 568 million have lower back pain as their condition. There is an increased prevalence in high-income countries.
There are many risk factors when it comes to developing a musculoskeletal disorder and ageing is certainly one of those. There are also many modifiable risk factors like physical inactivity and obesity that increase a person’s risk of developing a musculoskeletal condition.
Symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders
The term musculoskeletal disorders incorporates a wide range of health problems that affect the muscles, joints, bones and spine. It also incorporates rare conditions like lupus. Common symptoms of MSK disorder are stiffness, pain, loss of dexterity and loss of mobility.
Often, a musculoskeletal condition affects a person’s ability to live a normal day-to-day life. There are three different groups of musculoskeletal conditions. These include inflammatory conditions, conditions of musculoskeletal pain and osteoporosis and fragility fractures. Overall, there are currently over 150 different conditions.
Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis are known as inflammatory musculoskeletal conditions. These affect people at any age and often have a rapid onset. Inflammatory conditions are common. For example, there are more than 430,000 adults with rheumatoid diagnoses in the United Kingdom.
The impact of inflammatory conditions varies. It can affect the internal organs, eyes, skin or any other part of the body. These conditions are often treated by suppressing the immune system via specialist intervention as outpatients.
In terms of risk factors, there are genetic factors at play as well as factors like diet, obesity and smoking.
Conditions of musculoskeletal pain
Conditions like back pain and osteoarthritis are known as conditions of musculoskeletal pain. While these can happen at any age, they are more common as people age. Unlike inflammatory conditions, these have a more gradual onset. In the UK, these conditions are very common and there are around 8.75 million people who have sought osteoarthritis treatment.
The impact of this type of musculoskeletal condition is on the spine, joints and the pain system. It is treated with pain management, physical activity and sometimes, joint replacements.
As far as risk factors go, these conditions are more common when a person reaches their late 40s. Other risk factors include genetic factors, injury, joint injury, and obesity.
Fragility fractures and osteoporosis
When someone fractures a bone from a standing height, they could have osteoporosis. This mainly affects older people and is when the bones get weaker over time. Fragility fractures occur suddenly and discretely as a result. This is a common condition and the UK sees around 500,000 fragility fractures in hospitals each year.
Most commonly affected are the spine, wrist and hip. Osteoporosis is treated with medication that strengthens bones.
As well as advancing age, genetics plays a part in the development of osteoporosis. Other risk factors include poor nutrition, low physical exercise, inflammatory disorders, alcohol and smoking.
More facts and figures on MSK conditions in the UK
- 12,000 children in the UK have juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- 222,000 people have a condition called ankylosing spondylitis
- About 1.6 million people suffer from gout
- Between 1.7 and 2.8 million UK adults have fibromyalgia
- 3 million people suffer from osteoporosis
What affects musculoskeletal health?
One of the main factors is physical inactivity. When someone is inactive, they have a higher chance of developing a musculoskeletal condition. Even when people have an existing MSK condition, exercise can help to reduce overall pain.
When someone is physically active regularly, they reduce their risk of falls by 76%, hip fractures by 68%, back and joint pain by 25% and knee and hip osteoarthritis pain by 6%.
It is recommended that all adults below retirement age do 75 minutes of vigorous activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. They should also reduce how long they sit and do some strengthening activities twice a week.
Another factor affecting MSK health is obesity. And since 60% of UK adults are overweight or obese, this is a risk factor for many. With excess weight, a person can damage their weight-bearing joints like hips and knees due to carrying higher loads.
People who are obese are twice as likely to develop osteoarthritis of the knees when compared to people with healthy body weight. They are also twice as likely to develop gout and also have an increased risk of developing an inflammatory condition like rheumatoid arthritis.
Working with a musculoskeletal disorder
Employers need to manage the risks of musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace. There needs to be both general risk assessments and more specific ones for things like manual handling, repetitive work, awkward postures, display screen equipment and exposure to vibration.
Risk factors in the workplace
Things that can cause or exacerbate musculoskeletal disorders include:
- Lifting bulky or heavy loads
- Stooping, crouching or bending
- Dragging, pulling or pushing heavy loads
- Reaching, twisting and stretching
- Repetitive actions
- Excessive or sustained force
- Using hand-held tools
- Driving long-distance, driving over rough ground or driving heavy vehicles
- Poor working conditions like lighting and temperature
- Poor organisation
- Employees who have a health condition or existing injury that make them more vulnerable
Laws and regulations for work
Employers are obliged to protect their workers under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. Other important laws to follow include:
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations
- The Manual Handling Operations Regulations
- The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations
- The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations
- The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations
Workers themselves also have responsibilities. They must cooperate with employers to comply with health and safety duties and take care of their health and safety as well as that of others who are affected by their work.