Army Study on Back Pain Could Help Workers

Find out what physical and mental factors are most likely to lead to disabling back pain.

Soldiers who have low rank, high stress, and low social support are more likely to be disabled and discharged because of back pain.

This finding is according to a study in the December 1999 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

These and other risk factors may help in targeting programs to prevent back problems from leading to work disability, according to Dr. Michael Feuerstein, and colleagues of the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.

Researchers compared 174 soldiers who were medically discharged from the Army because of back pain with a similar group of nondisabled soldiers.

The study found that disability due to back pain was more likely for older personnel, who had a 13 percent increase in risk for each year of age.

Lower ranking soldiers also had higher disability rates: three to four times higher for privates than higher-ranking soldiers.

Soldiers with low levels of aerobic exercise had double the risk of back pain disability, while those with high levels of work stress were at nearly triple risk. Risk was also elevated for soldiers reporting a lot of worries and low levels of social support.

Feuerstein said back pain is a very common and expensive cause of disability for the Army, as well as for civilian employers.

Feuerstein and his colleagues concluded that programs to reduce back pain disability must address a wide range of factors, including, age, status, exercise, stress and social support.

"The good news is that most of the risk factors identified -- except for age and rank -- are potentially modifiable," said Feuerstein. "Efforts to reduce stress, increase social support, and improve problem-solving skills should be addressed not just to the individual worker but across the organization."

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