Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) cause substantial worker discomfort, disability and loss of productivity. Due to the difficulty in analyzing the tissues of patients in the early stages of work-related MSD, there is controversy concerning the pathomechanisms of the development of these disorders. The pathophysiology of work-related MSD can be studied more easily in animal models. The purpose of this review is to relate theories of the development of tissue injury due to repeated motion to findings of recent investigations in animals that address the role of the inflammatory response in propagating tissue injury and contributing to chronic or recurring tissue injury. These tissue effects are related to behavioral indicators of discomfort and movement dysfunction with the aim of clarifying key time points for specific intervention approaches. The results from animal models of MSD are discussed in the light of findings in patients, whose tissues are examined at a much later phase of MSD development. Finally, a conceptual model of the potentially negative impact of inflammation on tissue tolerance is proposed along with suggestions for future research directions.