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Nurse Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) Guide

Blog Post
7 minutes

What are Musculoskeletal Disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are non-communicable diseases that affect the body’s movement. MSDs can specifically affect muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, blood vessels, joints, and any structure that supports your limbs, neck, and back.

Common MSDs are:

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

MSDs are a result of prolonged exposure to daily living activities that are frequent and repetitive and cause discomfort to the individual. In recent years, these disorders have become a common workplace health problem, specifically in healthcare. Common tasks can easily be affected by MSDs and make completing them uncomfortable.

Everyday activities that can be affected by MSDs:

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

Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs)

MSDs that individuals experience as a result of work-related tasks are work-related musculoskeletal disorders. The motor and sensory nerves cause discomfort due to the repetitive tasks in the healthcare field such as bending and inserting needles, or other repetitive tasks.

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

These disorders aren’t always called disorders and are more common in the workplace than one may think.

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

These symptoms of MSDs nurses may experience can interfere with everyday work tasks like walking, lifting, or typing. Movement may be limited, and patient care and satisfaction will decrease.

How to diagnose MSDs

If you have symptoms of a musculoskeletal disorder, it’s best to contact your doctor for an appointment right away. Your doctor will likely perform a physical exam, looking for pain, swelling, redness, and muscle weakness. They will also test your reflexes to check for any potential nerve damage.

The most common areas doctors check for MSDs:

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

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. Once the results are gathered from the exam and any additional tests, your doctor can give you the correct diagnosis of an MSD or a different issue. The sooner you receive an accurate diagnosis, the sooner you’ll receive a treatment plan.

How to treat MSDs

The best way to treat MSDs and WMSDs is by following the treatment plan your doctor gives you after diagnosis. Treatment varies based on the type of musculoskeletal disorder you have and its severity.

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. Occupational therapists can not only help manage and mitigate your pain or discomfort, but they can also 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.

Nurses and WMSDs

73.2 percent of nursing professionals have experienced pain or discomfort in the past year

Workplace musculoskeletal disorders are considered the leading factor for workplace absenteeism among nurses, with 73.2% of nursing professionals having experienced pain or discomfort in the past year. These disorders not only affect absenteeism, but also the quality of life, task constraints, or create a desire to switch jobs.

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%. The commonality of WMSDs creates the necessity to switch to ergonomically designed workstations and equipment, and update the way nurses’ tasks are structured.

What causes nurse WMSDs?

While there isn’t just one cause of workplace musculoskeletal disorders, there are several factors nurses experience that can lead to WMSDs. The two biggest factors that can lead to nurses experiencing these disorders are the individual nurse’s demographics and the hospital’s organizational factors.

Nurse demographics:

  • Age
  • Activity level
  • Family history
  • Lifestyle

Hospitals’ organizational factors:

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

Work tasks likely to cause WMSDs in nurses

Nurses are more likely to suffer a back injury during their shift than any other profession including construction workers

Nursing as an occupation is demanding on the body, and with the repetitive nature of certain tasks, WMSDs are more likely to occur. The demands on the body are so much that nurses are more likely to suffer a back injury during their shift than any other profession, including construction workers.

To avoid workplace injuries, the best thing to do is to modify the tasks most likely to cause musculoskeletal issues or regulate how many times they may be done consecutively.

The tasks most likely to cause WMSDs:

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

Steps for nurses to prevent WMSDs?

A nurse’s risk of developing WMSDs increases with age and longevity at work. Muscles, joints, and bones over time naturally deteriorate and work tasks are usually always going to be repetitive. To stay in the field as long as they would like and to prevent musculoskeletal disorders, they can take the below steps to care for their bodies.

  • 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

Exercises to prevent WMSDs

In addition to the above steps, nurses can also do certain exercises to help prevent MSDs. These exercises allow the body to move in ways it doesn’t normally and stretch out the most noted pain point

Aerobic exercises include low to moderate-intensity workouts such as walking, running, biking, and cross-country skiing. Aerobic exercise should bring you breathlessness, fatigue, and/or sweating. They allow the body to handle the strain and movement requirements that accompany being a nurse and keep the body from experiencing joint pain.

Strengthening exercises promote endurance, power, and muscle growth by participating in activities that work your muscles against resistance. Strengthening exercises include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, climbing stairs or hills, doing pushups, and more. The more endurance a nurse’s body has, the less strain the body will experience when they have to move something heavy, keeping MSDs at bay.

Flexibility exercises improve posture, reduce aches and discomfort, and lower their risk of MSDs by improving their flexibility. Flexibility exercises, such as yoga, improve the ability of joints to perform the physical activity needed for daily tasks. 5 stretches that work toward the joints where MSDs are most common include:

  • 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.
  • 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 your arms stretched out above your head. Meet back in the middle, switch to your right write and tilt to the left for 20 seconds.
  • 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.
  • Cat cow - Get on 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.
  • Wrist/hand stretch - While sitting or 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 affect hospitals as a business

WMSDs can negatively affect hospitals as a business. Most employees that work in hospitals are at risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

The biggest ways hospitals can be impacted include:

  • 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, like nurses, can minimize the risk and hazards of WMSDs through work design by implementing:

  • Ergonomic solutions, and asset tracking so nurses can easily find them
  • Educational programs and empowering nurses by educating them on nurse musculoskeletal disorder prevention and treatment options.
  • Instructing how to act in response to WMSDs
  • Prevention programs
  • Stress mitigation plan
  • Encourage proper physical activity and stretching exercises
  • Use equipment that has been proven to reduce the risk of MSDs, such as devices to transfer patients, devices to lift patients, and ergonomic workstations on wheels.


Implementing changes to hospital workdays and preventing WMSDs is best for hospital administrators and nurses alike. Keeping staff happy and healthy allows them to offer an elevated level of care to patients. Contact us to see how our ergonomically built carts help with MSDs, and to see if you qualify for an evaluation sample.