Understanding MSDs with sex/gender lens

Published: February 10, 2016

Women who do the same tasks as men often face a higher risk of 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). It’s important that these differences be examined and understood in order to develop effective injury prevention approaches, said Dr. Julie Côté, associate professor of kinesiology at McGill University.

The question we need to ask may not be ‘Are men and women different?’ but ‘How much so?’ said Côté, who also holds a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Chair in Gender, Work & Health. How much of that difference is cultural and how much is truly genetic?

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.

For example, women have a higher proportion of what’s called type 1 muscle fibres than men, fibres that give women higher endurance but may also make them more vulnerable to low-load repetitive motion. Also, to compensate for their weaker strength, women may be engaging muscles at levels close to their maximum capacity.

Other factors at play include different responses to fatigue, lower pain threshold in women, and lower motor variability among women (men make more minute adjustments when repeating a motion than women). All these factors comprise a model that Côté has developed to guide her ongoing research into why neck and shoulder MSDs are more prevalent in women.

Côté appealed to other researchers to investigate sex/gender differences in their research projects. She pointed to a free online training module offered by the CIHR’s Institute of Gender and Health to help scientists consider sex and gender in biomedical research, in primary data collection and in data analysis.

A slidecast is now available of Côté's keynote remarks. Please go to IWH's YouTube channel.