• Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are more common than you might think, and can have a huge mental health impact

  • Counsellor Olga Chernyavska, specialist in working with physical disability, explores how MSD happen and how they can be avoided

  • If you are living with chronic pain or other disability, we have therapists to support you here

The topic of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) is important because it has a massive impact on the quality of life of billions of people in the world and millions of people in the UK. It is also important because the proportion of people, who are planning to spend most of their working hours at home has risen since the pandemic in the UK. It means that people need to be more aware of themselves and their environment to avoid MSD.

What is a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD)?

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are conditions that affect people’s muscles, bones, and joints.

The following activities can lead to MSDs: spending time in the same position at work every day, lifting something heavy, doing repetitive motions and having poor posture whilst working.

MSD may have a range of symptoms. Chronic pain is one of the first signs – some experience general pain in their bodies and others have it in a certain place. The common symptoms are: stiffness in joints, swelling, inflammation, difficulty in moving, spasms in muscles, bruising and discolouration.

Global and UK statistics

The Global Burden of Disease study (2020) found that approximately 1.71 billion people have musculoskeletal conditions worldwide. Rates of disability linked to MSD have been increasing and are projected to continue to increase in the next decades. 

Lower back pain is the main contributor to MSD and is the main reason for ending working life. The other contributors include fractures (436 million people globally), osteoarthritis (343 million), other injuries (305 million), neck pain (222 million), amputations (175 million) and rheumatoid arthritis (14 million).

MSD affect 1 in 4 adult population, which is around 9.6 million people in the UK.

Work-related MSD in the UK

According to the latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey in 2020-2021, 470,000 workers are suffering from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (new or long-standing). This figure is based on self-reporting, which requires certain conditions to be in place to produce accurate figures. For example, all the workplaces in the UK need to have policies to enable the workers to report concerns and non-oppressive work culture to promote the awareness of these policies and encouragement to use them.

Psychosocial factors

The workplace negative psychosocial factors (lack of job control, excessive job demands, low job satisfaction, and lack of social support) can cause stress, which triggers physiological changes (decrease sensitivity to pain; slowing down non-essential functions, such as growth and repair; reduced blood flow to skin to prevent blood loss in case of an injury). This can cause a significant risk to workers. For example, when the pain is not noticed during stress, the worker may work beyond their body's physical capacity.

It is important to understand that the physiological changes that people experience during stress prepares them to cope with an immediate danger. However, if it does not get resolved quickly, the physiological changes are sustained and the body remains stuck in stress mode.

It is essential for each individual to recognise when they stressed, what causes their stress and the levels of stress. Once this recognition is achieved, an individual can make a decision as to how best to cope with it or make the necessary changes in life. Some people might find it difficult to be in touch with their body or refer to body sensations. However, this body-mind awareness can be developed. The practices of yoga and body-focused counselling/psychotherapy uses the awareness of physical sensations to understand and interpret mental states. These practices could also help to regulate nervous system.

Mental health

Mental health conditions can increase the risk of developing some MSDs, such as back pain. MSD can also have a significant impact on mental health because living with pain can contribute to anxiety and depression (depression is 4 times more common among people experiencing ongoing pain in comparison to those without pain).

MSD requires psychological and practical adjustments to avoid deterioration in symptoms. The required changes can cause stress due to feeling overwhelmed. It can lead to having difficulties in relationships with self and others. If this is not addressed, the person with MSD might start experiencing depressive symptoms. Counselling and psychotherapy can help to accept the condition and discover the ways to manage it.

Prevention of musculoskeletal disorders

MSD prevention is important to avoid ill-health and long-term conditions. Prevention for MSD includes the need to take regular breaks (20-30 minutes), change positions, notice and treat inflammation early (following diagnosis from a medical professional). Please note that a diagnosis can be complex, so might take a long time.

The Public Health England team (2020) recommends for adults to engage in:

  • at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week
  • strengthening activities (yoga, resistance exercises) for major muscle groups on daily basis
  • moderate intensity physical activities, such as walking or cycling

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (2016) informs that vitamin D and calcium are important elements for MSD health to maintain healthy teeth, bones and muscles.

Public Health England (2014) review showed that smoking plays a role in progressive decline in musculoskeletal system.

The research indicates that obesity may have a negative effect on soft-tissue structures, such as tendon, fascia and cartilage.

Preventing MSD at work

The employer has a legal duty to protect employees’ health and safety, including MSD. Employers must protect workers from the risks of MSDs being caused or made worse by work.

The UK health and safety laws put legal obligations on employers to work with recognised trade unions in order to develop a positive health and safety culture in a workplace. According to Trade Union Centre (TUC), the organisations with involved trade union health and safety representatives have the safest and healthiest workplaces.

MSDs can be long-term, painful and limiting conditions. They are best to be avoided with a help of the awareness of ourselves and environments as well as gaining the knowledge about health and safety law.

People with these conditions can approach counselling/psychotherapy to understand body-mind connection. I'm an online counsellor who has specialist experience in working with people with physical disabilities, so I see the impact that these have on my clients. However, this article is written for information only – if you have any specific medical questions, you must consult your doctor/healthcare professional.

Olga Chernyavska is a verified Welldoing online counsellor 

Further reading

Is dancing the best medicine?

How hands-on bodywork helped me soothe anxiety

Is it time to think differently about pain?

What is the vagus nerve?


Cieza, A., Causey, K., Kamenov, K., Hanson, S. W., Chatterji, S., & Vos, T. (2020). Global estimates of the need for rehabilitation based on the Global Burden of Disease study 2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. The Lancet, 396(10267), 2006-2017.