HealthFebruary 03, 2020

Occupational pain in doctors: What you need to know

By: Brian Wu, MD, PhD

The next time you have a stiff neck or an aching back, take some time to consider what role your work might be playing in your pain. From long surgeries to grueling shifts on the floor, there are a variety of causes of occupational pain in doctors.

While it might not be an issue you're thinking about as you begin to practice, the truth is that work-related injuries have the potential to shorten or even end your medical career. That's why it's critical to understand the danger of occupational pain in doctors and know how to treat it.

What is occupational pain?

Occupational pain results from the work you do for a living. The most common causes of occupational pain are work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), which are injuries or diseases that involve your muscles, nerves, tendons, joints or spinal discs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an MSD is work-related when your job is an underlying cause of your health problems and/or the condition worsens or lasts longer due to your work.

There are a number of reasons why work-related MSDs happen to begin with. Muscle strain from overwork, repetitive movements, careless posture or awkward working positions are common culprits.

Cleveland Clinic reports that work-related musculoskeletal pain can take many forms, including:

  • Bone pain, which usually results from an injury. The pain can be deep or aching.
  • Muscle pain, which can often result from chronic overtaxing. The pain is generally less intense than bone pain; muscle spasms and cramps are also symptoms.
  • Tendon and ligament pain, which is often due to injuries such as sprains. Moving the affected area can make the problem worse.
  • Joint pain, which can be related to work-related damage or a number of disease processes. Pain and stiffness can vary in severity, and movement can exacerbate the problem.
  • Carpal, cubital and tarsal tunnel syndromes, which can result from overwork. The pain tends to occur along the path supplied by the nerve.

Occupational pain in doctors

Many physicians might not consider themselves to be at risk for work-related injuries and pain. According to a literature review in JAMA Surgery, however, the prevalence of occupational pain in doctors is comparable to that of high-risk workers like manual laborers. Roughly 35% to 60% of physicians in the review experienced occupational pain, and procedural physicians such as surgeons and interventionalists had the highest risk of work-related MSDs.

Physicians Practice also notes that increasing reliance on computers has set the stage for MSDs among health professionals, especially at practice offices designed prior to the turn to digital.

The most common diagnoses include degeneration of the cervical and lumbar spine, rotator cuff damage and carpal tunnel syndrome. These issues can lead to a number of negative outcomes, including having to resort to surgery, cutting back on hours or even retiring earlier than planned.

Advice for treating occupational pain

The best treatment for occupational pain is preventing it from happening in the first place.

The JAMA Surgery paper notes that learning about and using good body mechanics (ergonomics) will lessen the risk of overtaxing the muscles and joints and help prevent injury. Yet it also found that physicians are not sufficiently trained in ergonomics. Approximately 85% of at-risk physicians believed that formal ergonomics education should be standard training, but only 6.9% to 17% reported receiving any ergonomics education. Those who received training reported that this largely took the form of "sporadic, informal intraoperative directives."

If you're experiencing work-related pain already, consider the following recommendations from OMRON.

  • Nonpharmacological pain relief. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) units can be effective for short-term acute muscle and joint pain. Heating pads and hot or cold compresses on the affected area can also help to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Pain medications — with care. Medications can help temporarily relieve occupational pain. Opioid medications should only be used under a physician's close supervision on a short-term basis, and even over-the-counter pain relievers should be used with caution, since they can have side effects.
  • Diet and supplements. Consider topical treatments like capsaicin or oral supplements like glucosamine and turmeric to help reduce inflammation and pain. Following an anti-inflammatory diet, which limits refined sugar and calls for an increase in fresh fruits and vegetables, can be effective.
  • Regular activity. Any exercise can help increase endorphins to naturally reduce pain, but disciplines that emphasize slow, controlled movements (such as yoga and tai chi) have been found to be particularly helpful for muscles and joints. Strengthening the core of the body can also help reduce work-related MSDs.

So if you notice joint or muscle pain — particularly in the back, shoulders or neck — when you're working, don't ignore it. Assess the extent of the problem, determine the changes you can make and don't hesitate to reach out to a professional for guidance.

Brian Wu, MD, PhD