Learning About Your Musculoskeletal System

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What does it do?

Your musculoskeletal system supports you and helps you move. It's made up of your bones and joints. It also includes muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

What problems can happen?

You can injure muscles, ligaments, and tendons. You may get a strain, a sprain, or a problem from overuse.

  • A strain happens when you stretch or pull a muscle or tendon too far. This can happen when you exercise or lift something. Or an accident may cause a strain.
  • A sprain happens when you stretch or tear a ligament. A ligament is the tough tissue that connects one bone to another. Sprains can happen when you exercise or lift something. Or an accident may cause a sprain.
  • A tendon injury can happen with overuse or aging. Tendons are the tough fibers that connect muscle to bone. Tendon problems are most common in shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, or ankles. Motions you repeat often can cause tendon problems. This may happen in your job, sports, or daily activities.
  • Overuse injuries also are caused by too much stress on your joints, muscles, or other tissues without giving them time to recover. You may get this injury from exercise or sports. Work that often requires you to repeat an activity also may be a cause.

Problems with bones and joints include osteoporosis, arthritis, and breaks or fractures.

  • Osteoporosis means the bones are weak and thin. This means they can break easily. Older people are more likely to have this problem.
  • Arthritis is painful wear and tear on the cartilage of your joints. A joint is where two bones connect. Cartilage is tissue that covers and protects the ends of bones where they meet to form a joint.
  • Broken bones or fractures can happen in any of the bones of your body. Falls and other accidents are common causes of fractures. Osteoporosis can also lead to a fracture.

How can you prevent problems?

Prevent injuries

Keep your muscles healthy, strong, and flexible. This helps protect your joints and strengthen your bones. Increase your muscle strength. This can help your balance and posture and help you avoid falls.

  • Strengthen muscles with weights, rubber tubing, or certain exercises. This is called "resistance training." It includes:
    • Push-ups, leg lifts, and other exercises.
    • Training with rubber tubing or stretchable bands.
    • Training with free weights ("dumbbells") or weight-training equipment.
    • Doing heavy housework and yard work often. This includes chores like scrubbing the bathtub, washing walls, tilling the garden, and pulling weeds.

Prevent osteoporosis

Your bones need calcium, vitamin D, and exercise to stay strong. Avoid smoking, and limit alcohol. Smoking and heavy alcohol use can make your bones thinner.

  • Get regular exercise that builds bones. Exercise that causes you to bear weight or use resistance helps keep bones healthy. Start with an exercise level that feels right for you. Add a little at a time until you can:
    • Do 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise on most days of the week. Walking, jogging, climbing stairs, and dancing are good choices.
    • Do resistance exercises with weights or elastic bands 2 or 3 days a week.
  • Get enough calcium and vitamin D.
    • Eat foods rich in calcium. Try yogurt, cheese, milk, and dark green vegetables.
    • Eat foods rich in vitamin D. Try eggs, fatty fish, cereal, and fortified milk.
    • Talk to your doctor about taking calcium and vitamin D pills.

Prevent arthritis

  • Stay at a healthy weight. Being overweight puts extra strain on joints, such as the knees, hips, and balls of the feet.
  • Protect your joints from sports or overuse injuries. This will help you avoid damaging cartilage. Avoid things that require constant kneeling and squatting. And avoid other things that put stress on your knees or other joints.
  • Get plenty of exercise. Include things that don't put too much stress on or cause pain in your joints. Biking, swimming, and water exercise are good choices.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.