Consider farmers’ viewpoint when advising on back pain

About four of every five Canadians suffer back pain at some time in their lives — but any professionals advising farmers on how to manage the problem will want to consider how farmers’ needs differ from those of other sufferers, a new study suggests.

Of course, farmers’ access to health care out in rural areas might be relatively limited — but past that, health professionals need to remember farmers’ mindset “emphasizes real-world applications,” according to University of Saskatchewan researcher Catherine Trask.

Health professionals, “whose knowledge may be more academic,” need to advise farmers in a way that makes sense to someone with a “hands-on job in a rural environment,” according to Trask, a Canada Research Chair in ergonomics and musculoskeletal health at the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture.

Trask’s team, including Brenna Bath, Josh Lawson and Jesse McCrosky, analyzed data from the 2009-10 Canadian Community Health Survey to compare rates of chronic back pain in farmers and non-farm workers.

While 80 per cent of Canadians will experience back pain at some time or another, sufferers on the farm were more likely to be male, older than their urban counterparts, and with “less formal education.”

Physical demands of farming, combined with very long work hours in planting and harvesting seasons, present a “uniquely vulnerable scenario,” the Saskatchewan team wrote in its paper on the subject.

“We know from previous studies that chronic back disorders are a bigger deal for farmers than non-farmers,” Trask said in a university release.

In farming, numerous risk factors come with the job, she noted, such as heavy lifting, long-term work in vehicles with constant bumps and vibration, awkward or sustained postures, and “sheer quantity.”

“The majority of Canadian farmers work more than 40 hours per week, and farmers tend to start work early, in their teen years, and work well past typical retirement age,” Trask said.

There’s “limited information” about chronic back pain in Canadian farmers specifically, the team noted.

A 2001 survey of Iowa farmers showed double the risk of low back pain compared to the general working population, the Saskatchewan team noted. The farmers studied were eight times more likely to make “major changes in their work activities” due to low back pain.

The Saskatchewan team also noted a 2009 study of Irish farmers which showed farm income to be lower when operators have musculoskeletal disorder-related disability.

“Keep moving”

In practical terms, Trask suggested some steps farmers could take to stave off backaches, such as taking a break for a quick walk after operating a vehicle or machine for a long time, and/or taking up “active recreation” during off-hours.

“Get up to move and stretch if you have been in an awkward posture for a long time, and ask for help when you need to lift something heavy,” she added in the university release.

“The best advice for folks with back pain is to keep moving. Go for walks, get involved in active hobbies like curling or cross-country skiing, and aim to move your back slowly and gently even if it is a bit sore.”

The Saskatoon team’s findings were published online earlier this month in The Journal of Rural Health, a U.S.-based, peer-reviewed journal on rural health practices, research, theory development and public policy. — Network

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