Mitigating Risk for the Leading Cause of Disability
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Mitigating Risk for the Leading Cause of Disability

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    Musculoskeletal disease and injury is a risk we all face – and it’s on the rise

    Musculoskeletal disorders and injuries are the number one cause of disability, accounting for 33% of disability claims1 – and they’re on the rise. This article takes a closer look at just how common musculoskeletal injuries are and the related cost. In addition, we discuss solutions to this growing problem including steps employers and carriers can take to avoid some MSD-related injuries before they happen.

    Musculoskeletal injuries are associated with high costs to employers such as absenteeism, lost productivity, and increased health care, disability, and worker’s compensation claims

    An issue that requires increased attention

    Ask anyone who’s experienced back pain, sciatica, and other common musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), and they’ll tell you it’s a disruptive pain that is difficult to ignore and even more difficult to relieve. If you haven’t experienced MSD-related pain firsthand, you may think it’s generally the result of lifting something heavy or pulling a muscle during strenuous activity. But pain from MSD can seemingly come out of nowhere – even from a minor change in routine activity.  MSD impacts individuals across all professions – from those sitting at a desk for the majority of the day to those working in hospitals, warehouses and manufacturing settings. And if left undiagnosed and untreated, this pain can lead to disabling injury or disease.  

    In this article we provide perspective into the prevalence of musculoskeletal disability.  We share insights regarding expertise and tools in the marketplace that have proven beneficial in early identification and treatment of MSD in order to, when possible, prevent the progression of injury and illness before it becomes disabling.  

    According to the Spine & Pain Clinics of North America, one out of every two adults in the U.S. is affected by a musculoskeletal disorder in their lifetime.  MSDs are more common than circulatory and respiratory diseases, and treatment costs are relatively higher than the costs to treat other common health conditions2.

    Consider these facts  that demonstrate the impact of this type of injury and disease on the insured, working population.  

    Musculoskeletal disorders:

    • are associated with high costs to employers such as absenteeism, lost productivity, and increased health care, disability, and worker’s compensation claims
    • come with direct cost of almost $15,000 per MSD; and indirect costs of up to five times that amount3,4
    • significantly limit mobility and dexterity, often leading to earlier than planned retirement, lower levels of well-being and reduced ability to participate in societal activities
    • often lead to disabling conditions, have been increasing and are projected to continue to increase in the coming decades5

    In addition to the costs associated with lost productivity, assessments and treatments, when pain from MSD is left untreated, individuals often experience continually decreasing range of motion, develop scar tissue, and eventually permanent damage to fibrous tissue.

    What are MSDs and what causes them

    The CDC defines MSD as injuries or disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders are defined as conditions in which:

    • the work environment and performance of work contribute significantly to the condition; and/or
    • the condition is made worse or persists longer due to work conditions6

    As of April 2020, the top three most common musculoskeletal conditions were2:

    • lower back and neck pain such as herniated spinal disc, ligament sprain, muscle or tendon strain, degenerative disc disease, etc.
    • trauma such as injuries occurring from workplace injuries, repetitive motion, auto accidents and falls which can lead to bone fracture and soft tissue damage
    • arthritis conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis

    A closer look at back pain

    Back pain is the most common type of MSD-related pain and leads to more disabilities than any other MSD injury.5  For every 1,000 employees in the U.S., it costs the workforce about $444,000 in excess healthcare treatments and lost work time.  While, on average, 11% of working adults report receiving treatments for back pain, the rate is higher in many industries, such as healthcare, education and public administration.7
    Graphic source: Integrated Benefits Institute

    MSD is on the rise

    As we know, the pandemic necessitated a rapid transition to a remote work environment for many  organizations and forced employees from ergonomically-correct office workspaces to make-shift workstations at home. Work environment surveys conducted in 2020 indicated that only 50% of employees were working in a dedicated home office; the other half were working from the bedroom, living room or kitchen.  For at least the first six months of the pandemic, three-quarters of employees were working from a laptop without a separate monitor, and over half were working with a monitor that was too low, causing additional pressure on the discs and joints of the spine as well as an imbalance in the neck.8  Given that, for many companies, this sudden shift did not adversely impact employee production and actually saved the company on costly expenses such as rent, the long-term effect is that many employees are now working from home full-time on a permanent basis or in hybrid models.  

    While working from home is here to stay, many organizations have a long way to go to solve the problem of ensuring employees have an ergonomically correct work environment.  In addition to unnecessary strain on the back, shoulders and neck for those working with poor posture, the more sedentary workday (one doesn’t even have to stand up to “go to” a meeting) has caused an increase in obesity and a significant decrease in simple daily movement, which is necessary for musculoskeletal health.

    In late 2021, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published the findings of research9 that investigated the effects of a sudden shift to working from home.  The study revealed that, of nine body regions measured for MSD-related pain, four saw pain increase since the onset of the pandemic and the working from home period.  These increases included neck, low back, hip and knee pain.  Low back pain showed a statistically significant increase (P = 0.03) and was the leading reason for doctor visits and sick leave.

    The problem with today’s methods of diagnosis and treatment

    The most common methods to diagnose MSDs have been around for decades and are based on subjective assessments. The Oxford Scale, for example, requires the patient to push upper and lower extremities against the examiner’s resistance (usually the examiner’s hand). The examiner then subjectively grades the level of the patient’s strength on a scale of 0 to 5. Other common tests, such as the Timed Up & Go (TUG) Test and the Balance Error Scoring (BESS) Test apply similarly subjective methods to assess an individual’s movement. While these tests provide some insight into the cause of pain, their subjective nature can lead to inaccurate diagnoses and ineffective treatments.  

    Current treatments include injections, physical therapies, surgery and digital resources. Cortisone injections and selective nerve blocks serve to mitigate pain, allowing an individual to regain their range of motion comfortably; however, relief is often short-lived. Physical therapies aim to help the individual regain overall function by reducing pain and by recommending posture changes, activity modifications and exercises that the individual can perform if and when pain returns. And as of late, there are a number of digital resources such as mobile apps and teletherapy that are a step in the right direction in helping individuals gain some relief after injury. 

    But what if we could proactively intervene to ensure MSD limitations are addressed before they become disabling? 

    Recent technology has led to innovative, science-based solutions that can help objectively diagnose and prevent the progression of MSD.

    Preventing MSD progression

    Recent technology has led to innovative, science-based solutions that can help objectively diagnose and prevent the progression of MSD.

    Many cases of MSD-related injuries are preventable - such as those caused by repetitive motion, sitting for long periods of time, regularly lifting heavy items, and poor posture when sitting, walking or lifting. What if we could identify an individual’s probability for injury as well as the type of musculoskeletal injury they are most at risk for?  With this information and a few simple adjustments, we may be able to improve their movement health or an employer could make workplace accommodations before the pain progresses to disability.  

    Munich Re North America Life has partnered with Sparta Science to bring this type of risk assessment to our industry, with a focus on reducing the number of MSD-related injuries that lead to claims. Sparta Science has developed a platform that utilizes force plate technology (envision a device the size of a typical weight scale) and predictive machine learning modeling. The technology can be integrated into an employer’s established wellness program and used to record an employee’s risk within seconds. Machine learning provides an objective, science-based assessment with a mobile app that assigns movement recommendations to improve an employee’s movement health and reduce risk.


    As revealed by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study, without preventive measures, the rate of individuals experiencing MSD-related problems is expected to rise. Based on the factors discussed, it is recommended that employers and carriers consider the following approaches in mitigating disability risk:

    • Consider solutions that limit the number of disability claims before they even occur, rather than waiting for a claim to be filed and then working to limit the impact of paying benefits for months or years.
    • Track the rate at which covered employees are switching to a work-from-home or hybrid model
      • If working from home, encourage employers to provide means to an ergonomically-correct workstation. (For example: sending an ergonomic workstation consultant to the employee’s home to conduct an assessment.)
      • If hoteling, determine whether workstations in the office is adjustable, and whether each employee knows how to adjust to their ideal seat/desk height.
    • Monitor covered occupations that have experienced a shift in duties which may result in new MSD-related injuries - and consider whether shifted employees are being trained properly to avoid injury.
      • Some key industries that have seen a shift in duties include higher level education, traveling nurses/medical care, hospitality industry. 
      • Consider that a shift in duties may result in increased costs to treat new or augmented pain.

    Moving forward

    MSD is the number one cause of disability and it is on the rise. Continuing to leverage the same subjective assessments and generic treatments applied for decades isn’t the answer. It’s time to take a new approach, apply new technology, and interrupt the trend.  

    If you’re interested in MSD claim prevention and learning more about the Munich Re North America Life partnership with Sparta Science, please contact Lynda Turgeon.

    Lynda Turgeon
    Lynda Turgeon
    Sr. Market Research Analyst
    Group and Living Benefits