From the Shadows: Orthopedic Issues Are The Most Common Medical Condition

NOTE: This post summarizes key points and uses figures from the United States Bone and Joint Initiative, “The Hidden Impact of Musculoskeletal Disorders on Americans,” 2018. For the executive summary, click here.

Our bones, joints, and their connective tissues (muscles, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments) ─ allow us to live “our normal.” When our parts and pieces are strong, we effortlessly navigate daily living without a second thought. However, when something is broken, life can suddenly grind to a halt. It’s an unfortunate reminder of how critical our body is to everyday activities, not to mention our more challenging pursuits.

Given the intricate synchronization occurring every nanosecond among our bones, joints, and connective tissues – it’s not surprising that at least one piece, at one point in our life will become damaged. And that likelihood of damage increases with age. Yet, musculoskeletal conditions (the technically correct term for the entire system of bones, joints, and connective tissues) receive little attention in terms of research funding, general awareness, and public discourse compared to their prevalence and impact. It’s time to change that.

Orthopedic Conditions are Common Across All Age Groups

According to a National Health Interview Survey in 2015, approximately 1 in 2 adults in the United States reported a musculoskeletal condition making it the most common medical condition for those under 65 and the second most common for those 65 and older (behind circulatory conditions such as heart disease and stroke). For those who thought orthopedic issues are limited to elite athletes or senior citizens – that is unequivocally false. Orthopedic issues affect all people in all age groups.

Orthopedic Conditions Significantly Impact Life Outcomes

Life outcomes include (but are not limited to) daily living activities, ability to work, and quality of life. Depending on the conditions and their severity, all, none, or some of these outcomes can be dramatically impacted.

• Daily Living Activities: Completing routine tasks such as putting on a t-shirt or grocery shopping can become massive productions with a rotator cuff injury or hip arthritis.

• Ability to Work: The jobs people do (paid or unpaid) vary considerably in terms of physical demands. Some depend heavily on a fully functioning body such as construction, emergency services, and parent/grandparent (try keeping up with a 10 month / 25-pound baby when you have a bum knee).  Whereas others are less physically demanding. Regardless of where your work falls on that continuum, you need your body to function without limitation and pain. Here is a crazy stat – back pain alone caused a loss of 264 million workdays.

• Quality of Life: Not surprising, if you can’t do the basics, this will take a mental and emotional toll. Then add not being able to do the “active fun” stuff (e.g., golf outing, weekend get-away, walk in the park), and life starts to look a little bleak.

Orthopedic Conditions Deserve More Attention  

When it comes to research funding, general awareness, and public discourse, orthopedic ailments remain in the shadows. Examples of “A-list stars” are cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. These ─ and many other medical conditions ─ must remain in the spotlight. However, it’s time that orthopedic ailments join their ranks.

• Research Funding: The Bones and Joint Initiative highlights the discrepancy between health care visits, medical expenditures, and research funding – it’s massive. They also emphasize that these conditions are “preventable and treatable if we invest in new research for future and better current practices.”

• General Awareness: Prior to reading this post, it’s likely you did not know that orthopedic issues are among the most common medical conditions (depending on the age group). But – for whatever reason -- it seemingly changes how you view an orthopedic condition. You are no longer that “one-off.”

• Public Discourse: In terms of ideas, opinions, and information on this topic, they are limited or difficult to access (e.g., you will have to dig deep in the threads of reddit or the depths of Facebook). Medical providers should always be your primary source of guidance because of their expertise, access to resources, and ability to provide individualized care. However, there can and should be additional dialogue to supplement medical advice. Different perspectives bring different viewpoints. We learn from doing or from others. Hopefully you don’t have to “do” orthopedic issues frequently – so we should also learn the other way.


Orthopedic conditions are common across all age groups. Given their widespread occurrence and the profound effect they have on individuals' lives, these conditions deserve greater attention. By increasing research funding, general awareness, and public discourse surrounding orthopedic ailments, we can work towards improving the prevention, treatment, and overall management of these conditions, ultimately enhancing the quality of life for countless individuals.

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