Survey shows more Americans live, work in chronic pain

By H.J. Cummins

McClatchy Newspapers

MINNEAPOLIS — Cancer surgery, chemotherapy and radiation could not slow down musician Sarah Schmalenberger. But chronic pain did.

Schmalenberger, a French horn player and music professor, missed just five days of work when she had breast cancer five years ago.

But the pain that developed a year later — residual nerve and muscle damage on her left side — has her turning down free-lance gigs and questioning her teaching ability at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where she is an assistant professor of music history and horn.


"I just haven’t felt good about how I’m dealing with anybody," said Schmalenberger, now 44. "If I move my arm in class and it hurts, I wince. And I don’t like to wince in front of the students. They know I’ve had cancer, and they worry."

Schmalenberger is one of an estimated 22 million Americans who live and work in chronic pain — close to one in five workers, according to a 2006 survey by the National Pain Foundation.

That’s up from about 15 million in 1996.

The group doesn’t estimate how much of the pain is caused on the job.

Like Schmalenberger, almost half of those in the survey who reported chronic pain said it affected their ability to do their jobs.

It’s a problem that costs U.S. employers $100 billion a year in medical expenses and lost work, the foundation estimates.

Medical professionals said ever-growing workloads get some of the blame.

But more than that, these professionals blame general wear and tear on the workforce, including illness, sedentary lifestyles and baby boomer demographics that now have the number of 55-plus workers growing at twice the rate of the overall workforce.


Because employees now walk in the door with so many of these problems, some of the answers have to come from outside the workplace, doctors and therapists said.

"I think it’s a shared responsibility," said Dr. Jennine Speier, medical director at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis.

Speier still sees plenty of clients with work-related problems.

"What I hear a lot is, ‘I’m doing the work of three people now; they laid off two others and it’s only me left,"’ she said.

But today’s frantic lifestyles — two-job households, extra activities, watching TV late into the night — are also a problem, she said.

"I tell people, ‘Give me a day in the life of your arms,"’ Speier said.

People don’t realize the strain that comes with this fast-paced society, said Dr. Gary Carlson, a consultant at the Institute for Health and Healing at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

"Then their body rebels with pain," said Carlson, who recommends antidotes such as yoga, massage and meditative breathing.


One workplace-based answer has been "ageonomics," a program that applies ergonomic principles specifically to vulnerabilities of age, such as arthritis and repetitive strain injuries.

Another workplace-based solution is pain-management components in employer wellness programs — something only 22 percent of the programs have, the pain foundation said.

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