Sex and age matter in radiologists’ reading-room aches and pains

Radiologists who spend more than seven hours each day in front of a PACS workstation suffer more work-affecting musculoskeletal pain than their less sedentary colleagues, and the particular symptoms vary between men and women as well as between older and younger groupings.

That’s according to a study conducted at Emory University and published online Sept. 9 in the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

Rebecca Seidel, MD, and Elizabeth A. Krupinski, PhD, sent the Cornell Musculoskeletal Discomfort Questionnaire to all radiology trainees and faculty at Emory via anonymous link. Some 39 percent of recipients, 99 radiologists, responded.

Most (80 percent) indicated they spent more than seven hours a day at a diagnostic workstation, and this daily time tally was significantly associated with higher total pain scores.

The most frequently cited points of pain were the neck (66 percent), lower back (61 percent), upper back (43 percent), right shoulder (36 percent), and right wrist (33 percent).

Meanwhile, the researchers observed statistically significant gender differences in the location and severity of discomfort. Female radiologists were more likely than their male colleagues to report symptoms in the right shoulder, left shoulder and left forearm, and they were more likely to rate discomfort in the neck, lower back and hip or buttocks as moderately or very uncomfortable.

Further, the women radiologists were more likely than the men to report that right thigh pain slightly interfered with their ability to work (75 percent vs. 11 percent).

The authors suggest such differences between the sexes “may be due to furniture design that favors a male body habitus or differences in position and posture between genders. More investigation is needed to better understand how to optimize workstation ergonomics for the female radiologist.”

Work is affected

The survey also asked participants who reported pain whether or not it interfered with their ability to work.

Of respondents with neck pain, 53 percent said their symptoms slightly or substantially interfered with their ability to work, while slight work interference was reported by 41 percent of respondents with low back pain and 40 percent with upper back pain.

A few respondents with right wrist pain (n = 3) reported that it substantially interfered with their ability to work.

Seidel and Krupinski additionally found that years of board certification and age of radiologist were associated with statistically significant differences in responses. For example, radiologists who’d been board certified for more than 10 years were more likely to report that neck pain interfered with their work than radiologists who were board certified for less than 10 years.

The authors underscore as their most significant finding the insight that radiologists who spend more than seven hours a day at a PACS workstation—most of whom worked in a seated position 100 percent of the time—had significantly higher overall pain scores.

Sitting disease

Seidel and Krupinski acknowledge among their study’s limitations its potential for self-selection by radiologists experiencing work-related pain, as well as its single-site design and inclusion of trainees. The latter factor drove the average participant age to 37 years, which is surely younger than the average age of practicing radiologists in the U.S.

In their discussion, the authors comment that many if not most radiologists are at risk of “sitting disease”—the increased incidence of illness and mortality associated with prolonged sedentary time.

“Our findings suggest the need to educate radiologists regarding the adverse health effects of prolonged sitting and encourage them to incorporate movement breaks and periods of standing into their workday,” they write. “In addition, the reading room environment must be modified to allow for changes in work position throughout the course of the work day, for example, by incorporating furniture that is height adjustable.”