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Photo: Nancy L. Sprince.

Release: Jan. 16, 2002

UI study finds farmers more likely to suffer from back pain

Iowa farmers have a significantly higher prevalence of back pain than the general working population, according to a study by researchers at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

This finding, in a study published in the December 2001 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, is one of the first of its kind, said Nancy L. Sprince, M.D., UI professor of occupational and environmental health and co-author of the study.

"Aside from one Colorado study, there have been few studies assessing populations of farmers in an entire state or region for back pain," said Sprince. "There have been studies that have focused on back pain in other occupations, such as nursing and construction workers, but few have focused on farmers."

The results were based on responses from 287 Iowa male farmers enrolled in the Iowa Farm Family Health and Hazard Survey (IFFHHS), a population-based study that assessed diseases and injuries in relation to farm exposures. This part of the Farm Family Study looked at risk factors for back pain among male farmers. The data were collected from 1992 to 1994 by mail questionnaires from farm families in 18 Iowa counties, two counties from each of the state's nine crop and livestock reporting regions. A cooperative agreement with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health funded the study.

On the questionnaire, UI researchers looked at a number of risk factors pertaining to demographic, personal, economic and occupational aspects. Some of these risk factors included age, height, weight, smoking and alcohol use, depression status, farm size, range of income, occupational exposures such as number of years worked as a farmer, major farming activities, primary occupation, and off-the-farm work.

UI researchers found that male Iowa farmers ages 45 to 59 were about twice as likely to experience back pain for a week or more than younger and older farmers. Male Iowa farmers also

had a slightly higher prevalence of back pain than farmers from other states. The study also found that farmers who also work in a second job off the farm are more likely to experience back pain than farmers who do not work in a second job off the farm. Sprince noted that this is an important issue because more and more farmers today have to take on second jobs.

"There has been a trend over the last 10 years for increasing numbers of farmers having to work at second jobs off the farm. These second jobs could be in construction work, service work or transportation. This type of work, in addition to their regular farming duties, could put farmers at greater risk for conditions such as back pain that are related to repeated tasks involving lifting, heavy physical work, forceful movements and exposures to vibration," said Sprince, who directs the Heartland Center for Occupational Health and Safety in the UI College of Public Health.

She added that the study findings may help in designing prevention programs for back pain among farmers.