Effects of Stress on Work-Related Upper Extremity MSDs

You're feeling stressed. Your shoulders tighten up and your arms become stiff. But how much does stress contribute to cases of upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders? Quite a bit, say researchers.

A special issue of the Journal of Industrial Medicine focuses on the effects of work-related and individual stressors on the causes of upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders.

The journal issue compiles selected papers from the Georgetown Symposium on Biobehavioral Mechanisms of Work-Related Upper Extremity Disorders. This symposium was held to improve the understanding of potential mechanisms by which stress causes or exacerbates musculoskeletal problems, to identify future areas for research and to discuss the implications of stress on workplace ergonomic interventions.

"This symposium was the most comprehensive effort to date to delineate biobehavioral models linking psychosocial factors to work-related upper extremity disorders," said symposium chair Michael Feuerstein, PhD, MPH, of the Georgetown University Medical School and Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md. "The participants hypothesized the effects that stress has on the endocrine, immune and nervous systems and ultimately on peripheral nerves, tendons and muscles. Also identified were specific epidemiological and biobehavioral pathways research needs."

American, Canadian and European researchers and clinicians attended the symposium, and topics included job stress models, epidemiological foundations, musculoskeletal and biomechanical models, central nervous system models of persistent clinical pain, psychophysiology of work, and implications for intervention.

In one article, "Psychophysiology of work: Stress, gender, endocrine response and work-related upper extremity disorders," researcher Ulf Lundberg, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology and Centre for Health Equity Studies (CHESS), Stockholm University, noted that mental stress "may induce muscle tension and has been proposed to contribute to the development of work-related upper extremity disorders (WRUEDs) by driving low threshold motor units into degenerative processes by overload."

He found that measurements of perceived stress, catecholamines, blood pressure and heart rate are associated with stress-induced elevation of trapezius electromyographic activity. In repetitive tasks, where WRUEDs are common, "psychophysiological arousal is generally high both during and after work," he said. A possible explanation of the high prevalence of WRUEDs among women could be that women often are performing repetitive tasks and are exposed to additional stress from unpaid work, he added.

Lundberg concluded both physical and psychosocial work conditions may contribute to WRUEDs by inducing physiological stress and muscle tension.

To order the publication, contact Wiley-Liss at (212) 850-8776 and ask for ISSN 0271-3586.

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