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Nurse Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) Guide

By Team Altus | Published Dec 02, 2019 | 10 min read

Nurse Musculoskeletal Disorder Guide

Definition of Musculoskeletal Disorder

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are a non-communicable disease that has become a common workplace health problem. MSD is a condition that can affect your muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, blood vessels and joints and any structure that support your limbs, neck and back. Common MSDs are:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Tendonitis
  • Tension neck syndrome
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rotator cuff tendinitis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Fibromyalgia

MSDs are best described as discomfort experienced by the individual on their musculoskeletal and neurovascular systems and their motor and sensory nerves. This is a result of prolonged exposure to daily living activities that are frequent and repetitive.

Everyday activities that can be affected by MSDs:

  • Mobility
  • Eating
  • Communications
  • Personal hygiene
  • Dressing
  • Toileting

Definition of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs)

WMSD is discomfort experienced by the individual on their musculoskeletal and neurovascular systems and their motor and sensory nerves resulted from prolonged exposure to work tasks. These motions are likely to be frequent and repetitive.

The level of discomfort from MSDs varies. The discomfort can interfere with everyday life and tasks can often become difficult, painful and cannot be physically not be performed. Early treatment can retract or ease symptoms.

MSDs and WMSDs are commonly referred to as:

  • Sprains or strains
  • Repetitive motion injury
  • Repetitive stress injury
  • Cumulative trauma disorders
  • Overuse injury
  • Occupational health injury

What are MSDs symptoms?

  • Recurrent joint or muscle pain
  • Muscle cramping
  • Inflammation of joint or muscle
  • Movement limitation
  • Swelling
  • Dull aches
  • Stiff joints

For nurses, symptoms of MSDs can interfere with everyday work tasks like walking, lifting or typing. Nurse movement may be limited, and they can have trouble carrying out work tasks.

How to diagnose MSDs

If you have symptoms of a musculoskeletal disorder, it’s best to contact your doctor for an appointment right away. The sooner you receive an accurate diagnosis, the sooner you’ll receive a treatment plan.

Your doctor will most likely perform a physical exam on you. They will look for pain, swelling, redness, and muscle weakness. Your reflexes will be tested as they will show any signs of nerve damage. Your health history will also be considered.

Depending on your symptoms and the physical exam results, you may be ordered to undergo image testing such as an x-ray or MRI scan and blood tests.

How to treat MSDs

It’s encouraged to see your doctor for the right treatment plan. Your treatment plan can vary based on the type of MDS you have and the severity of it.

If you’re experiencing occasional pain, your doctor may suggest:

  • Moderate exercise
  • Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen

If your symptoms are more severe, your doctor may suggest:

  • Prescribed medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupation therapy
  • Or a mixture of any of the above

In this case, the doctor is trying to reduce inflammation and pain. Therapists can not only help you manage and mitigate your pain or discomfort, but they can help you maintain strength and teach you how to adjust to the disorder when performing everyday activities or work tasks.

It’s important to remember even after your diagnosis and treatment plan, there is no clear end to the disorder. MDS treatments may be a marathon and not a sprint.

Nurses and WMSDs

WMSDs are considered as the leading factor for workplace absenteeism among nurses. Not only can this occupational health issue affect absenteeism, but they may result in lower quality of life, task constraints or the want or need to switch jobs.

A study reported 73.2% of nursing professionals have experienced pain or discomfort in the past year.

A survey developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports WMSDs as the most common disorder in nurses. More than half (54%) of the nurses surveyed reported WMSDs in their lower back. 41% of nurses reported WMSDs in their neck, followed by the shoulder at 34% and hand and wrist at 26%.

What causes Nurse WMSDs?

Nurse demographic characteristics and the hospitals’ organizational factors both influence the risk of WMSDs.

Demographic characteristics:

  • Age
  • Activity level
  • Family history
  • Lifestyle

Hospitals’ organizational factors:

  • Work design
  • Work tasks
  • Education
  • Supplies
  • Equipment
  • Information
  • Peer support

Nurse work tasks likely to cause WMSDs

Nursing as an occupation is demanding on the body. In fact, nurses are more likely to suffer a back injury during their shift compared to a construction worker.

These nurse work tasks are likely to cause wear and tear on their musculoskeletal system:

  • Typing and using a mouse
  • Entering data into the EMR system
  • Pushing or pulling heavy equipment
  • Bending down to equipment
  • Bending while sharing information to patients
  • Reaching for equipment
  • Utilizing heavy equipment such as bar code scanners
  • Sitting in the same position at a desk every day
  • Lifting patients

Most vulnerable parts of the body to MSDs

  • Shoulder
  • Lower and upper back
  • Neck
  • Knees and lower legs
  • Hand/wrists
  • Forearms

How can nurses prevent WMSDs?

A nurse’s risk of developing WMSDs increases with age and longevity at work. Muscles, joints, and bones overtime naturally deteriorate and work tasks are usually always going to be repetitive. Nurses can prevent MSDs by taking the following steps necessary to care of their body:

  • Develop healthy habits
  • Stretching exercises
  • Strengthening exercises
  • Practice posture during working tasks
  • Keep repetitive motions to a minimum
  • Safely perform tasks such as lifting or pushing a heavy object
  • Utilize education resources surrounding nurse musculoskeletal disorders and ergonomics
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Keep a positive attitude
  • Engage in social activities
  • Engage in physical activity
  • Limit alcohol and tobacco

As always, your doctor is a great resource for more information on how to personally maintain a healthy lifestyle and to decrease your risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

Nurse exercises to avoid WMSDs

Aerobic exercises

Low to moderate intensity workouts such as walking, running, biking, cross-country skiing. Aerobic exercise should bring you breathlessness, fatigue and/or sweating.

Strengthening exercises

Promote endurance, power and muscle growth by participating in actives that work your muscles against resistance. Strengthening exercises include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, climbing stairs or hills, pushups and more. Everyday activities like heavy gardening count too!

Flexibility exercises

Nurses can improve their posture, reduce aches and discomfort and lower their risk of MSDs by improving their flexibility. Flexibility exercises improve the ability of joints to perform the physical activity needed for daily tasks. Yoga, pilates and stretching are great ways to stay supple.

5 stretches geared towards nurse WMSDs hotspots:

  1. Shoulder rolls
    • While in an upright standing or sitting position, relax your shoulders. Then roll them up, back and down. After a minute, reverse your direction. Repeat a few times.
  2. Side angle bend
    • While standing with your feet shoulder-distance apart, stretch your arms high above your head. Grab your left wrist and tilt your body to the right. Keep your spine long and arms stretched out above your head. Meet back in the middle, switch to your right write and tilt to the left for 20 seconds.
  3. Neck and shoulder release
    • While sitting up straight, relax your shoulders and back muscles. Slowly drop your left ear to your left shoulder and feel the stretch on the side of your next. Hold for 30 seconds. Meet back in the middle, centering your body and switch to the right side of your ear to your right shoulder.
  4. Cat cow
    • Get on your both hands and knees. Use a mat or blanket to cushion your knees if needed. Position your wrists underneath your should and your knees underneath your hips. Take a deep inhale and bring your chest up and allow your spine to sink towards the ground. Slowly exhale and arch your back up towards the sky. Repeat 5 or so times. Take your time and relax your neck.
  5. Wrist/hand stretch
    • While sitting our standing, extend your arm in front of you, palm up. With your other hand, bend your wrist, pointing the hand towards the ground. Hold for 20 seconds and switch wrists 3 times.

How WMSDs effect hospitals as a business

WMSDs can negatively affect hospitals as a business. this includes but not limited to:

  • Early exit from the labor market
  • Increasing compensation costs
  • Increasing health costs
  • A decrease in nurse productivity
  • A decrease in nurse efficiency
  • Lower quality of life in nurses
  • Lower service quality
  • Jeopardize the safety of patients

How hospital administrators can avoid WMSDs

Hospitals administrators can minimize the risk and hazards of WMSDs through work design by implementing:

  • Ergonomic solutions
  • Educational programs
  • Instructing how to act in response to WMSDs
  • Stress mitigation plan
  • Encourage proper physical activity and stretching exercises

Educational Programs

Empower nurses by educating them on nurse musculoskeletal disorder prevention and treatment options. Encourage nurses to seek support from other nurses, family members, friends or support groups. If diagnosed, an emotional support group is an important tool when coping with the disorder.

Prevention Programs

Create a strategic plan to prevent nurse musculoskeletal disorders. This occupational health issue isn’t going away and needs to continuously be worked at.

Use equipment and that have been proven to reduce the risk of MSDs

Key ergonomic features to look for in equipment

  • Height-adjustment capabilities
  • A monitor that can swivel and tilt
  • Accessories that can be accessed with minimal bending
  • An ambidextrous mouse station
  • A sturdy workstation with no wobble

A Complete Guide: Key Ergonomic Features in Technology Workstations

Want a deeper dive on ergonomics and their impact on nurses? Download our free eBook today!

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