Preventable Pain Nags Most Office Workers

“Pain in the workplace is not normal,” said Lisa DeStefano, associate professor and chair in MSU’s Department of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine and a physician with MSU HealthTeam. “A lot of people think it’s commonplace, so there’s not an open discussion.”

That’s why DeStefano – as a spokesperson for the American Osteopathic Association – is part of a campaign to educate office workers about what they can do to stay pain-free. The effort grew out of an AOA survey that found two-thirds of office workers had experienced physical pain in the past six months and that a quarter of them thought it was just part of having a desk job.

Workplace pain occurs most often in the low back, neck, shoulders and wrists, according to the survey. The tension causing that discomfort also tends to cause headaches. Taken together, those aches and pains also lead to lost productivity.

So what’s causing so much pain?

“People slouch,” DeStefano said. “The pain goes with sitting at a computer all day if you treat your spine like a coat hanger. We can’t just hang on our spines, they’re not meant to function that way. And our neck muscles are meant to turn our heads, not hold them up while we slouch.”

To prevent office pain, DeStefano and the AOA say workers should:

  • Sit properly. When you’re sitting properly, your torso is balanced over your pelvis, your hips are rolled forward and your weight is on your “butt bone,” not your tail bone, DeStefano said. Even though your chair has a back, that doesn’t mean you should use it. Instead, sit closer to the edge of your seat with your feet flat on the floor. You should be looking straight ahead at your computer, not up or down.
  • Get moving. Workers should be sure to get up out of their seat at least five minutes every hour. Instead of sending a text message or short email to your colleague down the hall, get up and walk to their desk. “It’s amazing how many people choose not to get out of their chair,” DeStefano said.
  • Build strength. Along with its other health benefits, regular strength training is an effective way to prevent office pain. “It takes some muscle to hold ourselves up all day long,” DeStefano said. “Few people understand that, even though they sit at a desk all day long, they still need some conditioning.”

DeStefano noted that workplace pain is not a symptom of underlying disease – the pain itself is the problem – but it’s still a serious public health issue; chronic pain affects 100 million Americans, according to the AOA.

“Life doesn’t stop when work does,” she said. “People get home at night and have a headache, but they still have to make dinner and help the kids with homework. They still have to live their lives.”

Research We’re Watching: Hands-on treatment helps low-back pain

Osteopathic manual treatment (OMT) is a safe, effective way to relieve low back pain, according to a study published in the March/April Annals of Family Medicine. In this study, researchers randomly assigned 455 people (ages 21 to 69) to receive various combinations of OMT, ultrasound therapy, or sham (fake) versions of these treatments. At the end of six treatment sessions, participants who received OMT reported less low back pain than those who received sham treatments. OMT-treated participants were also more likely to be very satisfied with their back care, and they needed fewer prescription medicines to relieve their pain. Side effects from OMT were minimal. Ultrasound treatment was not effective, the study found. Researchers did not evaluate the cost-effectiveness of OMT treatments, which can run $100 or more per session. More research is needed to confirm the long-term effectiveness, and cost, of OMT for low back pain.

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