Back on the farm

If you’re a middle-aged farmer, there’s a good chance you have chronic back pain, says University of Saskatchewan researcher Catherine Trask. You’re also more likely to have a harder time getting help for it in a way that makes sense to someone with a hands-on job in a rural environment.

"Farmers have a different set of needs than non-farmers," explained Trask, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Health within the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture at the U of S.

"Obviously, farmers tend to live rurally, so their access to health care might be limited. Less apparent, though, is that because of their profession, their mindset emphasizes real-world applications. This is something that health professionals, whose knowledge may be more academic, need to keep in mind when giving farmers advice on managing chronic back pain."

Trask and her U of S colleagues Brenna Bath, Josh Lawson, and Jesse McCrosky analyzed data from the 2009-2010 Canadian Community Health Survey to compare the rates of chronic back pain in farmers and non-farm workers. They found that while 80 per cent of Canadians will experience back pain at some time in their lives, on the farm, sufferers were more likely to be male, older than their urban counterparts, and with less formal education. The team's findings are published in The Journal of Rural Health.

"We know from previous studies that chronic back disorders are a bigger deal for farmers than non-farmers," Trask explained, citing numerous risk factors that come with the job: heavy lifting, long-term work in vehicles with constant bumps and vibration, awkward or sustained postures, and sheer quantity.

"The majority of Canadian farmers work more than 40 hours per week, and farmers tend to start work early, in their teen years, and work well past typical retirement age," she said.

In the meantime, Trask said farmers can help stave off an aching back with some simple measures such as taking a break for a quick walk after operating a vehicle or machine for a long time, and taking up active recreation in the off hours.

"Get up to move and stretch if you have been in an awkward posture for a long time, and ask for help when you need to lift something heavy," she said. "The best advice for folks with back pain is to keep moving. Go for walks, get involved in active hobbies like curling or cross-country skiing, and aim to move your back slowly and gently even if it is a bit sore."
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