Higher risk of some musculoskeletal injuries among women may be due to sex and gender differences beyond size and strength

June 23, 2016 (Toronto, Ontario)—Women who do the same tasks as men often face a higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in their neck and upper limbs. That higher risk may be due to both biological (sex) differences as well as differences in social roles, activities and behaviours (gender), and it’s important that these differences be examined and understood in order to develop effective injury prevention approaches.

That was Dr. Julie Côté’s key message today at the 9th International Scientific Conference on the Prevention of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (PREMUS 2016). Dr. Côté, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at McGill University, addressed about 400 conference delegates this morning in a keynote entitled, “Can using a sex/gender lens provide new insights into MSD mechanisms?” Dr. Côté also holds a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Chair in Gender, Work & Health.

Women report pain, discomfort and other symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders in the neck and upper limbs about twice as often as men, whereas men are more likely to experience low-back injuries. Sex/gender differences may be the reasons why.

“Sex and gender have their own operational definitions, but there is significant interaction between them, with aspects of biology influencing psychosocial roles and attitudes, and vice versa,” said Dr. Côté. “That’s why we have come to use the expression ‘sex/gender differences’—to recognize the integration of these influences.”

The sex/gender differences between men and women go beyond their different physical strengths to include differences in the types of muscle fibre found in men and women. For example, women have higher proportion of what’s called type 1 muscle fibres than men, fibres that give women higher endurance but can also lead them to perform tasks for longer duration.

Added to this are the repetitive and invariable nature of the tasks that women are more likely to perform, and the fact that women compensate for their weaker strength by engaging muscles at levels that are close to their maximum capacity. The interaction between these different factors could be the reason for the greater risk of muscle overload among women, leading to a higher risk of injury, said Dr. Côté.

Other sex/gender differences that may explain women’s higher rates of neck and shoulder injury include differences in how women and men move, respond to fatigue, perceive pain and adapt to stress at the physiological level. Also, differences in job assignment, job control and social roles outside of work may also come into play.

“In sum, the question we need to ask may not be, ‘Are men and women different?’ but ‘How much so?’” said Dr. Côté. “This question is all the more pertinent when considering making workplace adaptations to prevent work-related MSDs.”

Held every three years since 1992, PREMUS is the primary conference of the Musculoskeletal Disorders Scientific Community of the International Commission of Occupational Health (ICOH). PREMUS 2016, a four-day event that draws to a close today at Toronto’s Allstream Centre, is hosted by the Institute for Work & Health.

The Institute is an independent, not-for-profit research organization that aims to protect and improve the health of working people. Recognized as one of the top five occupational health and safety research centres in the world, the Institute provides practical and relevant findings on the prevention of work injury and disability to policy-makers, workers, employers, clinicians, and health, safety and disability management professionals. For more information about the Institute, please go to: www.iwh.on.ca.

For more information about PREMUS 2016, please go to: premus2016.iwh.on.ca

For more information or for an interview with Dr. Julie Côté, please contact:

Uyen Vu
Communications Associate
Institute for Work & Health
613-979-7742
uvu@iwh.on.ca

Cindy Moser
Communications Manager
Institute for Work & Health
416-927-2027, ext. 2183
cmoser@iwh.on.ca