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Helping Injured Workers Manage Chronic Lower Back Pain

Posted by Danny Sanchez, PT, CEAS on October 13, 2015

 Helping Injured Workers Manage Chronic Lower Back Pain http://blog.onsite-physio.com/workplace-wellness-programs/helping-injured-workers-manage-chronic-lower-back-pain @onsitephysio

According to The National Safety Council, 20% of work-related musculoskeletal injuries turn into extended disabilities. For employers, this is costly and frustrating. The challenge of injured workers suffering from chronic lower back pain is not new. Finding ways to help them manage their pain can bring relief to both of you.

Psychological Barriers

Back in 2006, Frank Pennachio of the Institute of WorkComp Professionals wrote an article about the psychology of work-related pain. His observations can help you understand why your injured worker may be hesitant to return or to work at full capacity. Pennachio noted that:

  • Chronic lower back pain is often overwhelming. The pain may be intense, and it won’t go away. It’s on your employee’s mind constantly.
  • They are afraid of reinjuring themselves, so they’re afraid to return to work. Even though their physical therapist or doctor assures them they have recovered enough to perform certain tasks, they don’t believe it.
  • They may believe co-workers assume they are faking their injury and ongoing pain. They are embarrassed to return to work.

When you understand your injured worker’s concerns, you can help them overcome those fears and return to work sooner and more confidently.

Prescription Medications

Legitimate prescriptions for opioid medications are becoming a significant concern for employers. While these medicines provide powerful pain relief, they can alter your employee’s ability to think clearly or function safely on the job. Opioids are also highly addictive. That means your employee could develop an addiction trying to manage their pain.

How You Can Help

Review your Drug-Free Workplace program. What is your policy if a worker tests positive for drugs when he is taking prescription medication for chronic lower back pain? A positive test doesn’t necessarily mean your employee is abusing the prescription, but taking the drug could impair his ability to work safely. That would also put co-workers and your entire company in danger.

Educate injured workers with chronic pain about the dangers of opioids. Stress the need to discuss this problem with their doctor right away, rather than waiting until problems develop. The National Safety Council says studies have shown opioids do not relieve pain more effectively than non-opioid medications.

They also suggest giving the injured employee’s doctor a copy of their job description. This underscores the need for job descriptions that accurately describe required physical tasks as well as the work environment.

One study quoted by the National Safety Council showed you can achieve “significantly less” future absenteeism by training workers in return-to-work skills if they have been off the job for an average of three months. Providing on-site physical therapy is the first step. It can help injured workers learn to manage chronic lower back pain in several ways:

  • Job-specific rehab rebuilds the strength and range of motion necessary to return to work.
  • It also builds your employee’s confidence in their ability to do the job.
  • Co-workers can see the injured worker is not “faking” and is working to return as soon as possible.

The Job Accommodation Network suggests numerous ways you can modify your injured employee’s work environment to help ease their transition back to full duty and improve chronic lower back pain. These ideas fall into four categories:

  • Daily living (break times, restroom accommodations, etc.)
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Muscle pain and stiffness

To help you find the most effective accommodations, The Job Accomodation Network strongly recommends that you consider the worker’s specific pain-causing limitations and then decide exactly which strategy works best for you and your company. 

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