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Study Links Back Injuries to Personal Distress


ANAHEIM — A four-year study of workers who injured their backs on the job showed that most of them disliked their work or were distressed about personal problems, a University of Washington orthopedic surgeon reported Thursday.

"Symbolically, back pain may be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back for workers either overburdened by their jobs--or distress in their lives," Dr. Stanley J. Bigos told colleagues at the annual meeting of American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

So for all the interest in physical symptoms of back pain, Bigos advised, "non-physical variables are important factors for predicting back injury."

Bigos' report was the opening lecture as 9,000 surgeons began five days of meetings at the Anaheim Convention Center. Academy leaders called it the largest study to date of industrial back injuries and suggested that it could reshape the way back injuries are handled by doctors, employers and insurance companies.

Americans spend $16 billion on back injuries each year. In an interview after his lecture, Bigos suggested that doctors and "humane employers" should refocus their energies, from simply treating workers for back pain to counseling some to change jobs.

"People don't hurt as much if they have something better to do," he noted.

But Bigos said: "This problem is probably not going to be solved in the doctor's office. We need a humane approach of helping people from being trapped in a bad situation . . . working in a job that nobody is able to work until you're 65." He noted that tree fellers in Washington state are not able to work that demanding job past the age of 40.

Bigos and seven colleagues spent more than four years evaluating 3,020 blue-collar workers at a Boeing Co. aircraft manufacturing plant in western Washington. They paid close attention to the 279 workers who reported back problems.

Other than a history of back pain, workers most likely to claim a back injury were those who said they "hardly ever" enjoyed their jobs, or those who rated themselves as unhappy on a personality test, the surgeons reported.

Workers who responded "hardly ever," to the question, "I enjoy the task of working my job," were 2 1/2 times more likely to report a back injury than those who reported that they "almost always" enjoyed their jobs, the surgeons said.

Also, those who appeared from their answers on a personality test to be in "distress" were more than three times as likely to report a back injury as workers who described their lives as content, the surgeons said.

In addition to Bigos' talk Thursday, he and his fellow surgeons described their results in the January issue of the medical journal, Spine. Bigos said the study is continuing, with researchers looking at the relationship between back injuries and absenteeism.

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