Going to Work Can Be a Pain in the Back
People sometimes need time off work for chronic back pain. Research tells us that age makes a difference in whether people with serious back pain return to their jobs. Older workers with back pain are less likely to go back to work and, if they do, less likely to stick with it. Popular opinion says it's the physical pain that makes work impossible for these people, but are we missing part of the picture? Is the work environment itself part of the problem?

In this editorial, the author suggests that the workplace may be the straw that breaks the worker's back--literally. A stressful or unstable work environment can challenge a person's health, and studies prove it. The author points to a study of British social servants in which greater job status--and job stress--were related to earlier death. In other research, people who were threatened with downsizing had a serious decline in health over a period of three years. These effects very likely extend to spine health as well.

The author believes that older workers are particularly prone to the challenges a workplace can put on workers' health. For older workers especially, a stressful work setting makes back pain less tolerable and potentially more disabling. And older workers may be less free to change jobs to relieve the mental or emotional strain of work.

The effects of a rough day at work aren't all in your head; they may be in your back, too. More humane work settings could really give workers' health a boost. The author hopes that workplaces will learn to value people--and their backs--more in the years ahead.

Nortin M. Hadler, MD. Editorial: The Bane of the Aging Worker. In Spine. June 15, 2001. Vol. 26. No. 12. Pp. 1309-1310.