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The University of North Carolina has a University Employee Occupational Health Clinic (UEOHC) dedicated to providing UNC employees with medical care for work-related injuries and illnesses. The contents of this page discuss different Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), how to identify an MSD, and what to do if you suspect you have or are developing a MSD.


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What is an MSD?

Musculoskeletal disorders, also called cumulative trauma disorders, are gradual-onset injuries that usually occur after repeated micro-trauma to a specific body part. They may take weeks, months, or years to develop and are often ignored at first due to the slow onset of symptoms.

MSDs are disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. Some examples of MSDs include: Carpal tunnel syndrome, Rotator cuff syndrome, De Quervain’s disease, Trigger finger, Tarsal tunnel syndrome, Sciatica, Epicondylitis, and tendonitis.

How do MSDs occur?

One way to think about musculoskeletal disorders is to think of parts of your body (wrists, neck, eyes, etc.) as a bucket. Micro-trauma from a variety of activities starts to fill that part of your body’s trauma bucket. At the same time, your body is healing and removing trauma from the bucket. If more trauma goes into the bucket than can be removed by healing, the result can be pain, impaired movement and/or weakness. MSDs occur based upon the duration and severity of exposure to ergo stressors. MSDs and MSD symptoms usually occur gradually over a long period of exposure where brief exposure would not cause harm.

How do I identify an MSD?

Unfortunately, most of the structures initially affected by MSDs do not have nerve endings to let you track how much micro-trauma your body has left to heal. In a sense, this is good because we are always experiencing some micro-trauma and we would always be in pain. On the other hand, this lack of obvious feedback means we have to pay extra attention to the MSD signs we do get.
Remember, MSDs are gradual-onset disorders, they usually take a while to occur. Therefore, be on the lookout for lingering:

  • Discomfort or Pain: A tendon may not have nerve endings but if it starts to swell, becomes damaged or the muscles around it are being overworked, you may feel some discomfort or pain. If it occurs as soon as you arrive at work or start a task, if it wakes you up at night, follows you home, take notice!
  • Tingling, Numbness or Weakness: Some MSDs affect nerve function. If your hands “fall asleep” unexpectedly or wake you up in the middle of the night with that “pins and needles” feeling, this may be a sign of MSD onset. Likewise, if you experience trouble opening doors, jars, etc., this may be a sign.

Other signs include:

  • Burning
  • Swelling
  • Change in color
  • Tightness, loss of flexibility

What do I do if I suspect I have an MSD?

If you feel you have an MSD make sure to: