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Worker pain costs over $60 billion

/ Source: staff and news service reports

Headaches, back pain, arthritis and other muscle and joint pain cost U.S. businesses more than $60 billion a year in lost productivity, a study has found.

Most of those costs are incurred by reduced performance at work as a result of the pain, not due to absenteeism, according to the study, based on a telephone survey of 28,902 workers in a wide variety of blue-collar and white-collar professions.

The study focused on some of the most common pain conditions that affect both men and women. Headaches were the most frequently cited condition, followed by back pain, foot pain, arthritis and other joint and muscle aches. The study didn’t include some common conditions such as dental pain and menstrual pain.

An estimated one in eight workers in the United States loses an average of five hours of productivity a week due to a pain condition, the study found.

“Pain doesn’t discriminate by age or gender, for the most part,” said epidemiologist Walter Stewart of Geisinger Health Systems in Danville, Pa., the lead author of the study.

Because 97 percent of the workforce is on the job on any given day, a significant number of people are going to work in pain, the study concluded.

The research appears in Wednesday’s JAMA, a theme issue featuring pain-related research.

One JAMA study found that treating depression in arthritis patients helped reduce joint pain, and another said better management of pain in children is needed. A study in November’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, published Monday, found a low-tech pain reliever for infants during routine shots: sugar water, bottles or pacifiers and being held by parents.

Better treatment needed

The pain-cost study suggests many workers aren’t receiving adequate treatment for treatable “garden variety pain,” resulting in unnecessary workplace costs, said Stewart.

Stewart did the 2001-02 research while at AdvancePCS Center for Work and Health in Hunt Valley, Md.

The findings should raise awareness among workers, doctors and employers, who might be able to help keep pain-related costs down by launching workplace awareness campaigns about treatment options, Stewart said. While the costs of absenteeism and disability are known to employers, the costs of reduced performance in the workplace are largely “invisible,” he added.

Employers could reduce pain-related costs by investing in things such as properly positioned computer stations or instruction on how to lift heavy objects, said Allen Lebovits, a pain management specialist at New York University Medical Center.

“Employers are not attuned to prevention, and they need to definitely put more money into it” to avoid pain-related costs in the long run, said Lebovits, who was not involved in the study.

Workers were asked about any absent days or lost on-the-job productivity during the previous two weeks, and about specific types of pain that might have contributed.

Nearly 53 percent reported having pain during the previous two weeks, and 13 percent said they had a pain-related loss in productivity.

The total nationwide cost of pain-related lost productivity was estimated at $61.2 billion yearly, based on a formula using wage data and including converting reduced performance into lost hours.

The survey did not factor in lost productivity among employees when a co-worker is absent or not performing at full tilt.’s Jane Weaver and The Associated Press contributed to this report.