Physician, Heal Thyself? Surgeons at High Risk for Neck Pain and Lower Back Pain

Not that long ago, a study pointing to the dangers of something called “text neck” garnered a lot of attention, in part because the problem was so widespread and in part because the name was so instantly evocative and recognizable.  Everybody knew what the researchers were talking about … the familiar position that we all adopt when we’re looking down at our phones. Now a new study out of the Mayo Clinic is calling attention to the exact same postural problem among a highly specific group. Those at risk this time are surgeons, whose head-down position during surgery is putting them at increased risk for clinically significant neck and lower back pain.

The study’s findings were published in the esteemed Journal of American College of Surgeons, and there’s no doubt that it will attract a lot of attention from those in the medical community, and particularly those who perform surgery. Among that group, a reported 42% were putting their neck into a demanding position when performing laparoscopic surgery, and nearly double that number did so during open surgery. The lower risk from laparoscopic surgery is attributed to the fact that a camera is used and projects the surgical site onto a screen, thus allowing surgeons some time to stand up straight.

Speaking of his group’s findings, Mayo Clinic vascular and endovascular surgeon and study co-author Samuel Money, M.D. said, “At the end of an operating day, a majority of surgeons hurt because of their profession. It may not be like the NFL, but it’s a physically demanding profession. It’s clearly concerning that we’re putting ourselves at physical risk to do our jobs. “The bigger picture, Dr. Money says, is that physical injuries—just like emotional distress—can lead to missed work and burnout for surgeons, and this affects patient access to care. This makes the problem of the surgeon workforce shortage even more severe,” he says. “This will increasingly come into play as our population continues to age.”

The study included a total of 53 surgeons who wore measuring devices on their neck, upper and lower back and arms to gauge their positions during surgery. Each of the 34 men and 119 women were followed through 116 procedures and then provided responses to surveys regarding post-surgery pain and fatigue. The group reported the most pain in the neck, followed by the lower back and upper back. The longer the surgery, the more pain was experienced.

Commenting on their findings, scientific director in the Mayo Clinic Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery and senior author of the study Susan Hallbeck, Ph.D. said, “We expected to see some neck pain after longer surgeries. We didn’t expect to see the pain as high as it was, and we didn’t expect surgeons would be in these extreme angles that long.”

As is true for the rest of us, physicians can help cut down on their pain by taking intermittent breaks and stretching during surgery.

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