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Urgent need to address the impact of musculoskeletal conditions - WHO report reveals the true extent of musculoskeletal disease and the impact that these conditions have on society

Release Date: 
Monday, October 27, 2003

LUND, SWEDEN – The WHO identifies the urgent need to address the impact of musculoskeletal conditions across the globe in an extensive report released today. Musculoskeletal conditions are the most frequent cause of disability severely affecting individuals’ ability to carry out their activities of daily living. The problem is just as important in developing as in developed countries. Musculoskeletal conditions are amongst the most costly illnesses because of the long-term care and support they require, and consume on average 3% of total GDP in developed countries. With an increasing prevalence in both developed and developing nations, the financial and healthcare burdens are set to escalate dramatically.

“Longer life expectancy with an increasing number of elderly in all population groups have led to an escalating prevalence of musculoskeletal diseases worldwide,” said Professor Anthony Woolf, Professor of Rheumatology and lead investigator, UK. “This will continue to increase, particularly in developing countries, with the harmful changes in lifestyle associated with urbanisation and motorization. This report is the first attempt to look at the effect that these conditions have on societies throughout the world, and the results will inform the debate on health priorities and the development of preventative strategies for musculoskeletal conditions.”

A WHO Scientific Group of experts has been working over the last three years in collaboration with the Bone and Joint Decade to map out the burden of the most prominent musculoskeletal conditions, with the long-term aim of helping prepare nations for the increase in disability brought about by musculoskeletal conditions. In particular the Group has gathered data on the incidence and prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, major limb trauma and spinal disorders. The Group also considered the severity and course of these conditions, along with their economic impact.

“Although the diseases that kill attract much of the public’s attention, musculoskeletal conditions are the major cause of morbidity throughout the world, having a substantial influence on health and quality of life, and inflicting an enormous burden of cost on health systems,” said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, then Director General, WHO, at the launch meeting of the project. “The ongoing work of the WHO and the Bone and Joint Decade aim to highlight the situation and encourage action to bring relief and hope to the millions who suffer from musculoskeletal conditions.”

Musculoskeletal conditions are common in all regions of the world and encompass about 150 diseases and syndromes affecting children and adults, which are usually associated with pain and loss of physical function. The most common conditions, and those upon which the report focuses, include joint diseases rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, spinal disorders (including low back pain), and conditions arising from severe trauma.

Within a decade of onset, rheumatoid arthritis leads to work disability, defined as a total cessation of employment, in no less than 51% of patients and maybe as high as 59%. 80% of patients with osteoarthritis have some degree of limitation of movement, and 25% cannot perform their major daily activities of life.

In 1990, a worldwide estimate of 1.7 million hip fractures occurred as a result of osteoporosis. This number is expected to exceed 6 million by 2050. Low back pain has reached epidemic proportions being reported by about 80% of people at some time in their life.

In the developed world, where these conditions are already the most frequent cause of physical disability, ageing of the most populous demographic groups will further increase the burden these conditions impose. In the developing world, successful care of childhood and communicable diseases and an increase in road traffic accidents is shifting the burden to musculoskeletal and other non-communicable conditions. A dramatic increase in suffering caused by musculoskeletal conditions is imminent and will result in severe financial pressures for health services around the world.

Total costs of musculoskeletal disease in the US in 2000 have been calculated at US$254 billion. In developing countries, the costs for injuries care is estimated at US$100 billion, a figure nearly twice that of total foreign aid for these nations.

“The enormous impact of these conditions requires urgent action” said Professor Lars Lidgren, chair of the Bone and Joint Decade. “This has already been called for by Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, when endorsing the Bone and Joint Decade who stated that there are effective ways to prevent and treat these disabling disorders, but we must act on them now.”

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Please also refer to the press statement released by the World Health Organisation, contact their press office for a copy – Fadéla Chaibf ([email protected]) or Gilbert Padey ([email protected]) Telephone: + 41 22 791 2544

“The Burden of Musculoskeletal Conditions at the Start of the New Millennium” is the result of three years of work by an international scientific group of experts. It was undertaken as a collaboration between the WHO and the Bone and Joint Decade. It is published in the WHO Technical Report Series.

An electronic version of the report is available at:

For additional information on ordering The Burden of Musculoskeletal Conditions at the Start of the New Millennium (TRS 919) or other WHO publications, contact: Marketing and Dissemination, World Health Organization, 20 avenue Appia, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland (tel.: +41 22 791 2476; fax: +41 22 791 4857; email: [email protected]

THE BONE AND JOINT DECADE is an independent global non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the health-related quality of life for people affected by musculoskeletal disorders worldwide. It is the umbrella organization by which National Action Networks, professional medical societies, patient advocacy groups, governments, industry and researchers partner to effect change by: (1) Raising awareness of the growing burden of musculoskeletal disorders on society; (2) Empowering patients to participate in their own care; (3) Promoting cost-effective prevention and treatment; and (4) Advancing understanding of musculoskeletal disorders through research to improve prevention and treatment. For more information, visit the web site at

Contact: Daniel Barrett
at +44 20 7462 8934 or
[email protected]