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Is Your Job a Pain in the Back?

Your project is late, your phone won't stop ringing, and your back is acting up again. If that scenario sounds entirely too typical, your stressful work life may be a key cause of your aching back.

Stress Seeks the Weakest Link continued...

John E. Sarno, MD, has a very different opinion.

"Psychological factors, as far as I'm concerned, are far and away the predominant cause of physical symptoms of physical pain in the workplace," says Sarno, professor of clinical rehabilitation medicine and attending physician at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and author of the books Healing Back Pain and The Mindbody Prescription.

"All the pressures of life can be considered stressful," he says. "The human psyche is so arranged that in our unconscious minds we do not like stress. As a consequence, we tend to develop a great deal of internal anger to the point of rage. The reason people get physical symptoms [is to be a distraction from this rage]. The physical things the people are doing [like sitting or standing for long periods of time] are not really the cause of the pain. The brain is simply taking advantage of those physical phenomena in order to start the painful process going. The brain produces this pain by slightly reducing the blood flow [to a muscle, nerve, or tendon].

Catherine A. Heaney, PhD, is the co-author of one of the few studies specifically examining the relationship between stress and the risk of developing a back injury. She and her colleagues had 25 men and women fill out personality questionnaires and then lift boxes under stressful (i.e., being yelled at by a supervisor) or nonstressful conditions.

The stress of being yelled at made some of the participants more likely to lift the box in a way that put particular strain on the back. People most vulnerable to reacting this way in the face of stress had introverted and intuitive personalities. This research is published in the December 2000 issue of the journal Spine.

"What our study shows is that psychosocial stress affects the way people move when accomplishing their job tasks," says Heaney, associate professor of public health at Ohio State University in Columbus. "For some people, it increases the loading on the spine, which ultimately is likely to put them at increased risk for low back pain."

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