Chronic pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Not only does this pain create untold suffering for millions of people, but its treatment also costs individuals and employers billions of dollars every year. Given these stakes, it’s not surprising that teams at the world’s leading medical institutions are trying to understand the reasons for chronic pain and what can be done to address them.
Recent research indicates that one of the primary work-related causes of chronic pain is long-term exposure to vibration. This research focuses on two primary forms of vibration and their possible negative effects:
- Hand-arm vibration, or HAV, is often experienced by workers who use vibrating hand tools all day on the job. HAV can give rise to permanent injuries such as vibration white finger, carpal tunnel syndrome, and ulnar tunnel syndrome.
- Whole body vibration, or WBV, occurs when the vibration of a larger machine is transmitted to the body of the person operating it, usually through a seat or flooring. WBV is potentially much more debilitating than HAV.
What are the risks from whole body vibration?
According to studies published by governmental occupational health agencies, people who work in vibrating vehicles—train engineers, truck drivers, operators of construction machinery, pilots and so on—are at significantly higher risk of developing chronic lower back and neck pain than other workers who are not exposed to this vibration. In one such study, locomotive engineers exposed to WBV were found to be twice as likely to experience frequent low back and neck pain as other workers.
Similar results have also been found is studies of military helicopter pilots, who are required to maintain detailed logs of their flight time (and therefore their cumulative exposure to WBV). Pilots who have flown more than 2,000 hours have far more instances of transient and chronic back pain than non-flying officers or those assigned to aircraft that produced fewer vibrations.
Who should be concerned?
Naturally, these studies should at least raise questions for people whose jobs require them to sit in vibrating vehicles or stand on vibrating machinery all day. This includes drivers of tractors, fork lift trucks or earth-moving machinery, but may also extend to landscapers using riding mowers or construction workers using any type of machinery that exposes operators to whole body vibration. As the links between hours of WBV exposure and disability have been studied and documented, regulators and unions have worked with employers to improve working conditions and set limits for WBV exposure to protect workers. These exposure limits are usually expressed in terms of the number of permissible hours of exposure per week, but WBV can still produce negative effects in people who are exposed to it only occasionally, so diligence is required on the part of the worker as well as the employer.
If your job regularly exposes you to significant levels of whole body vibration and you’ve experienced chronic or occasional attacks of back or neck pain, there is very possibly a connection. In addition to speaking with your manager, you should also consider visiting a chiropractor. Chiropractic physicians are experts at diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal problems, particularly those related to the back and neck. Depending on your situation, he or she may be able to help you recover from your injury and recommend ways to lower your health risk from on-the-job vibration.