Musculoskeletal disorders and occupational exposures: how should we judge the evidence concerning the causal association?

Scand J Public Health. 2014 Mar;42(13 Suppl):49-58. doi: 10.1177/1403494813517324.


Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) affecting the back, upper and lower extremities are widespread in the general population, implying a variety of causal factors. Multiple causes are not mutually exclusive, and a high background rate does not preclude associations with specific factors that are uncommon in the general population. MSDs have well-documented associations with occupational ergonomic stressors such as repetitive motion, heavy lifting, non-neutral postures, and vibration. Organizational features of the work environment, such as time pressure and low decision latitude, may also play a role, at least by potentiating the effects of physical loading. Numerous systematic reviews have mostly concurred with these overall findings. Nevertheless, some continue to debate whether MSDs are sometimes work-related, even for those performing jobs with repetitive and routinized tasks, heavy lifting, and/or pronounced postural strain. This article discusses (1) some epidemiologic features of MSDs that underlie that debate; and (2) the question of what should appropriately be considered a gold standard for scientific evidence on an etiological question such as the health effects of a non-voluntary exposure, such as an occupational or environmental agent. In particular, randomized clinical trials have little relevance for determining the health effects of non-therapeutic risk factors.

Keywords: Epidemiology; etiology; evidence-based medicine; musculoskeletal disorders; musculoskeletal epidemiology; occupational MSDs; public health; review; scientific evidence.

MeSH terms

  • Evidence-Based Practice*
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / epidemiology
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / etiology*
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology*
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Review Literature as Topic
  • Risk Factors