Musculoskeletal health conditions have a devastating impact on individuals and bring costs to the economy; we need action from government

Research from the charity Versus Arthritis suggests that over 20 million people in the UK – around a third of the population – live with a musculoskeletal (MSK) condition.

It is estimated that one in 10 employees in the UK suffer from one.

They include things like osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, traumatic fractures, osteoarthritis and a range of conditions that cause pain in the lower back, the neck and parts of the arms and legs.

Living with an MSK condition can be devastating for those affected, causing pain, reduced mobility and diminished self-confidence. It can also lead to extended periods of absence from work, and in some cases, people can be forced to give up work altogether, leaving them unemployed and impoverished.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), such conditions accounted for 6.6 million working days lost in Great Britain in 2022-23 – the second highest cause of work-related ill health after stress, depression or anxiety. Clearly, they can bring substantial costs to the state in the form of social security and NHS spending.

50% of women and 20% of men over the age of 50 will have a fracture caused by osteoporosis, and a third of sufferers who are of working age are forced to leave their jobs. These are staggering statistics.

It is disappointing, therefore, that the government, which claims to want to help people over 50 get back into work, has so far ignored the asks of the “Better Bones” campaign which is led by the Royal Osteoporosis Society and the Sunday Express.

The campaign is calling for access for all over-50s to fracture liaison services with dedicated bone specialists, and for £30 million a year of extra investment to make fracture liaison services universal in England, Wales and Scotland. Fracture liaison services can do invaluable work in identifying whether people have osteoporosis, for which drug treatment is available, but currently, only 51% of NHS trusts in England have these services.

As the Federation of Small Businesses has said of the campaign, it is “more than a health initiative – it’s a matter of economic vitality. We need to address the increased numbers of those who have left the workplace as employees, self-employed or small business owners themselves due to sickness. This campaign is one of those steps.”

Addressing the shortcomings in fracture liaison services would contribute to helping over-50s back into work, and I urge the Chancellor to take action on this in the forthcoming budget.

The workplace itself can be a source of MSK conditions. The HSE has noted that such conditions can be caused by actions such as lifting heavy loads, working with handheld power tools, long-distance driving or driving over rough ground, working with display screen equipment and repetitive work that sees an individual using the same hand or arm action over a period of time.

It is crucial that working practices minimise the risk.

The work of the HSE, which is responsible for inspecting organisations and enforcing statutory duties in relation to health and safety law, is vital, yet its funding has been savagely cut since 2010. This is an attack on the health and safety of us all and must be reversed.

And of course, trade unions play an invaluable role in identifying such risks and campaigning for improved working conditions.

People with MSK conditions who are in work need the right support so that they can remain in work, and those who are looking for work need to know what support is available to help them get back into employment.

The Access to Work scheme provides important support to people who are disabled or have health conditions to access and stay in work, yet in 2021-22 only around one in eight people who received it had an MSK condition. The scheme has been widely referred to as ‘the government’s best kept secret’ and needs far greater promotion.

Conservative austerity has pushed local authorities to the brink, and this has had a terrible impact on sports and leisure services. It was reported last year that there was a net decline of 382 swimming pools across England since 2010; many of those lost were in areas of deprivation. Yet swimming is particularly good for people with arthritis. We need to see urgent investment in leisure facilities and a commitment to public services.

To address the crisis in MSK health we need government to come forward with a cross-departmental MSK strategy that seeks to promote good MSK health, reduce the risk of accidents and workplace practices that exacerbate MSK conditions and ensure support is there for people to acquire and stay in work. Anything less is to fail both the millions who suffer from such conditions and the economy.

Margaret Greenwood MP

Margaret Greenwood is the Labour MP for Wirral West, and has been an MP since 2015.