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Study: Emergency Medical Services Professionals Show High Prevalence of Back/Leg Pain Among Emergency Professionals

Over 50% of 930 emergency medical services (EMS) professionals reported an episode of back/leg pain within the last two weeks according to a recent cross-sectional survey conducted by The Ohio State University researchers.  Significant predictors of back/leg pain included:

  • fair/poor health (over four times higher incidence)
  • prior back problem (nearly 3 times higher incidence)
  • dissatisfaction with the profession (nearly 2 times higher incidence)

Males had a lower incidence of back/leg pain. Those with the highest level of education (Master’s degree or higher) had a lower incidence of back/leg pain compared to those reporting high school as the last level of formal education. 

Of the volunteers who reported back/leg pain, it was the first time the condition was experienced for 30.0% of this cohort group.  Among volunteers who had experienced back/leg pain in the past, 39.6% reported no pain in the research defined time period.

The Bottom Line – How This Applies To Ergonomists
Over half of those providing emergency medical services – life meaningful tasks that include moving patients from a bed to a stretcher, transporting patients down stairs, and performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation – are experiencing back/leg pain. 

Although this study concentrated on the relationship between back/leg pain and work/life/demographic characteristics (the authors specifically limited their research to non-mechanical factors), there are high physical strains across the back when performing common EMS activities. 

Multiple engineering and administrative controls exist for this group’s common tasks which could reduce back physical demands.  EMS professionals conduct procedures that are too life significant to be compromised by back disorders.  This study reveals that back/leg pain is widespread among this group of workers and defines a potential client source for ergonomists.  

Other Key Study Points
Call volume was not significantly related to back/leg pain. This is a surprising finding given that back physical strain likely increases in proportion to work level – something that call volume represents.

Other important findings included:

  • Job satisfaction was high – 89.3% were satisfied or very satisfied with their work
  • A significant proportion of the study population was overweight/obese – 49.3%
  • There is a dominance of male EMS personnel (63.8%)  

The authors note that cross-sectional study designs have limitations that make it perilous to place high confidence in causal relationships identified by variables.

Study Method
From a 2004-2006 Longitudinal EMT Attributes and Demographics Study (LEADS) involving 3,359 EMT professionals, 1,009 reported back problems.  This subset became the cohort for this study.  The control group was created through random sampling of those who did not report back problems and became comprised of 1,050 individuals.

A questionnaire composed of 58 validated inquires was sent to all subjects during 2007.  Non-responders, those not currently performing EMT duties, and other select inclusion criteria reduced the study population to 470 who reported recent pain and 460 who did not report pain.

The outcome of interest was self-reported back or leg pain of one day or more duration within the last two weeks and severity of recent back pain (of a scale of 0 [minimal pain] to 100 [severe pain]).

The variables evaluated relative to their association with back/leg pain included:

  1. the subject’s health (past back problem, BMI, overall health, physical activity, and current smoking status)
  2. the subject’s work/life (certification level, call volume, job assignment satisfaction, EMS profession satisfaction, intention to leave the EMS profession, community size, type of EMS service, ratio of emergency to non-emergency calls, patient transportation duties, and years worked as an EMS professional)
  3. the subject’s demographic characteristics (marital status, race, gender, age and education level)

This complete paper can be acquired at:

Article Title: Back Problems Among Emergency Medical Services Professionals: The LEADS Health and Wellness Follow-UP Study

Publication: American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 53:12-22, 2010

Authors: J R Studnek, J Mac Crawford, J  R Wilkins III, and M L Pennell

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2010-01-18.