The musculoskeletal system consists of the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage, and connective tissues (such as collagen and elastic fibers, which are responsible for supporting and binding our organs together.) The musculoskeletal system plays at important role as it is what provides the human body with its form, stability, and ability for movement. However, there are also certain diseases that can have an impact on the way our musculoskeletal system functions, which can cause issues with mobility as well as chronic pain, and are the leading cause for disability globally.

As many as 1 million Canadians suffer from musculoskeletal diseases – with 80% of those being women, and 20% being men. Musculoskeletal diseases can range from acute and be short-lived, or they can be chronic and lifelong in nature. Typically characterized by pain, musculoskeletal conditions can have a significant impact on one’s mobility and dexterity, and overall functional ability – such as impacting their day to day lives (i.e. ability to work, go to school, and socialize with others.) Ultimately, this can also have an impact on one’s mental wellbeing.

The most commonly diagnosed musculoskeletal conditions include those affecting the joints (such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and gout), those affecting the bones (such as osteoporosis, osteopenia, fragility fractures or traumatic fractures), those affecting the muscles (such as sarcopenia), and those that affect the spine (such as neck or back pain.) Multiple areas of the body can also be affected by musculoskeletal pain, which may be associated with widespread chronic pain disorders (which are sometimes complex in nature, such as fibromyalgia) or certain inflammatory or connective tissue diseases (such as lupus.)

In order to diagnose whether or not a musculoskeletal disease may be the cause of a patient’s pain, it is important to determine what areas of the body are affected, whether the pain is new or has been persisting for some time, if there are any other symptoms in addition to the pain, and if there are any triggers that worsen the pain or anything that relieves it. To rule out (or rule in) any other potential causes of pain, your physician may order further testing – including X-rays (if it is suspected that you have a fracture, to look for a certain type of arthritis, or if a bone infection or tumour is suspected), MRI (to identify any abnormalities of soft tissues such as tendons and muscles, as well as help detect fractures), CT scan (to provide further detailed imaging for suspected fractures or bone problems), as well as blood work (if disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus are suspected.)

As for what causes musculoskeletal pain, it is most commonly the result of an injury (such as a motor vehicle accident or fall), or it can be caused by overuse (for example, if you have a job that involves heavy lifting, you might have chronic back pain as a result) in addition to things like prolonged immobilization and poor posture. Someone with musculoskeletal pain may also experience other symptoms such as stiffness, fatigue, and sleep disturbances – and, as mentioned, it can also significantly impact mental health, and may therefore also lead to anxiety or depression.

When it comes to treating musculoskeletal pain, the focus is usually on the cause. The different types of treatment methods used may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, applying heat or cold to the affected areas, reduced workload, acupuncture or acupressure, low-impact physical activity (such as strengthening, conditioning and stretching exercises), massage, and biofeedback. In cases where musculoskeletal pain is acute and mild in nature, it can also be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. When the pain is chronic in nature (i.e., fibromyalgia), medications such as antidepressants or anticonvulsants may also be prescribed, which can also help to reduce pain. However, if you are prescribed these medications, it’s important to note that you may experience some initial side-effects (such as increased fatigue) – which should go away over time. These particular medications may also take several weeks before you notice any reduction in your level of pain.