Musculoskeletal disorders - glossary

This section provides you with an explanation to some of the technical words an phrases mentioned in this section of the OH toolkit.

Back pain

Back pain is the most common type of musculoskeletal disorder. Back pain is often distinguished as either upper or lower back pain, and it can have a range of causes. Most cases of lower back pain are known as ‘non-specific’ because they’re not caused by serious damage or disease, but by sprains, muscle strains, minor injuries or a pinched or irritated nerve.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

The carpal tunnel is a channel in the palm side of the wrist. Running through the carpal tunnel are the tendons that you use to bend your fingers and wrist, and the median nerve. You can get carpal tunnel syndrome if there's too much pressure on the median nerve. This pressure could be as a result of swelling from inflamed tendons or other swelling which narrows the carpal tunnel.

Cumulative trauma disorder

Another term used for ‘musculoskeletal disorder (MSD)’, mainly used USA and Canada. It’s a disorder of the musculature and/or skeleton after repetitive strain injuries to muscles, tendons, joints, bones, and nerves.


Ergonomics is the scientific study of people at work. The goal of ergonomics is to reduce stress and eliminate injuries and disorders associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture, and repeated tasks. This is accomplished by designing tasks, work spaces, controls, displays, tools, lighting, and equipment to fit the employees physical and mental capabilities. For more information, see the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors website.

Musculoskeletal disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are conditions that affect the nerves, tendons, muscles and supporting structures, such as the discs in the back. They result from one or more of these tissues having to work harder than they're designed to. The symptoms of MSDs range from mild and periodic to severe, chronic and debilitating. Some are specific conditions with known causes, such as vibration white finger and tenosynovitis. Others are less specific and have less obvious causes, such as diffuse upper limb pain and non-specific back pain.

Occupational health nursing

Occupational health nursing is a nursing specialism which covers health and wellbeing in the workplace. For more information, visit the websites of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners and the Royal College of Nursing.

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy is the term used for the assessment and treatment of physical and psychiatric conditions using specific methods to prevent disability and promote independent function in all aspects of daily life. Find out more about occupational therapists from the NHS and HSE.


Physiotherapy, often referred to as ‘physio’, is a profession that uses physical methods, such as massage and manipulation, to promote healing and wellbeing. Physiotherapy treatments are often used to help restore a persons range of movement following injury or illness.


Chartered physiotherapists combine their knowledge and skills to improve a broad range of physical problems associated with different ‘systems’ of the body. In particular they treat neuromuscular (brain and nervous system), musculoskeletal (soft tissues, joints and bones), cardiovascular and respiratory systems (heart and lungs and associated physiology). For more information and details on how to find a physiotherapist, see the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy website.


This term is often used in a clinical context to describe the process whereby an individual uses the services of various professionals (eg doctors, nurses, physiotherapists) to restore any functionality they’ve lost due to illness or injury. Anyone who’s experienced an MSD, particularly if they’ve had surgery, may need ‘clinical’ rehabilitation. During this rehabilitation, various aspects of function such as muscle strength, joint movements and so on are restored via exercise and other training. There’ll also be a mental or psychological aspect to this rehabilitation, which might deal with aspects such as an individuals pain beliefs and pain behaviours.

Repetitive strain injury

This is the term previously given to damage to muscles, nerves, tendons, tendon sheaths or other soft tissues resulting from overuse or misuse, usually in the upper limbs. The Health and Safety Executive prefers the more precise term upper limb disorder, because RSI is not well defined and can be misleading.


Inflammation of a tendon. (Any term ending in ‘-itis‘ refers to inflammation of that structure.)


Inflammation of the inner lining of the tendon sheath that houses tendons. Tenosynovitis most commonly occurs in the hand, wrist or forearms.

Upper limb disorders

MSDs which affect the arm, hand, shoulder and neck are called upper limb disorders (ULDs). When these are work related, they’re termed WRULDs. An in-depth medical glossary about upper limb disorders is available from the RSI website

Vocational rehabilitation

The aim of vocational rehabilitation is to restore an individual’s work functions via, for example, phased re-introduction to work programmes and so on. This rehabilitation will need to take account of the psychological, as well as the physical, aspects of work. The two types of rehabilitation, clinical and vocational, may not be separate, and both might take place at work.

MSDs are said to be work-related MSDs (WRMSDs) when theyre caused or made worse by the work environment. Find out more...

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