Depressed Mood Triples Risk for Chronic Neck Pain in Office Workers

Routine screening for psychosocial, physical, and neurophysiologic factors may be indicated.

Depressed mood more than triples an office workers’ risk for chronic neck pain, according to a prospective study published in Journal of Pain.1

After adjusting for age, sex, and body mass index, researchers found that office workers reporting depressed mood were 3.36-fold more likely to develop chronic neck pain within a year of hire (odds ratio [OR] = 3.36; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.10 – 10.31; P = .03).

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Self-reported depression scores were low in the study, suggesting that even subclinical symptoms have a large impact on the development and chronicity of pain, write Bahar Shahidi, PT, PhD, from the department of radiology and orthopedic surgery at the University of California in San Diego, and colleagues.

The study is one of the first to prospectively examine multiple types of modifiable risk factors for chronic pain in a single cohort of healthy office workers with no prior history of neck pain or injury.

“Our hope is that results from this study will eventually lead to routine screening protocols and development of primary prevention programs to prevent chronic pain in high risk workers,” Dr. Shahidi said.

Physical and Neurophysiologic Factors

For the study, researchers recruited 171 individuals aged 18 to 65 years who had recently gained an office position in the Denver metropolitan area. Participants worked 30 hours or more each week and used a computer for at least 75% of the workday. Inclusion criteria included a score of less than 5 on the Neck Disability Index, and an absence of cervical pathology. Baseline evaluations were conducted within 3 months of hire.

At 1 year, 21% of the healthy office workers had developed interfering neck pain that limited their daily activities for 3 or more months — a rate lower than previously reported incidence rates of 30% to 50% in the general population.

Though having less impact than depression, poor cervical extensor endurance and impaired diffuse noxious inhibitory control (DNIC, indicating altered pain processing) were also significant predictors of chronic neck pain.

“It seems logical that computer work would require high endurance of the cervical extensors to stabilize the neck and head throughout the workday,” the authors write.