Spine Update: The Influence of Occupation on Lumbar Degeneration


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Abstract

In many countries, back problems have been defined as occupational injuries. The belief underlying this injury model is that back symptoms are caused primarily by work-related mechanical factors that damage the structures of the spine, either through a single incident or repeated loading. Although the etiopathogenesis of degenerative findings in the disc and their relation to pain are poorly understood, changes in the disc are suspected of underlying many back symptoms. The focus of this article is on examining the relation between occupational factors and disc degeneration.Occupational factors suspected of accelerating spinal degeneration include accident-related trauma; heavy physical loading and materials handling, including lifting, bending, and twisting; prolonged sitting; and sustained nonneutral work postures and vehicular driving.There is evidence to suggest that occupational exposures have an effect on disc degeneration. However, these factors explain little of the variability in degeneration found in the adult population. Furthermore, the lack of a clear dose–response relation between time spent in various occupational loading conditions and degenerative findings adds to doubts about a strong causal link. The contribution of suspected occupational risk factors appears to be particularly modest when compared with familial influences, which reflect the combined effects of genes and early childhood environment. These findings challenge the dominant role assumed for occupational loading in disc degeneration and associated back problems, and suggest a more complex etiology.

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