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Due to the tremendous addition of work related injuries attributing to lost productivity and workdays, billions of dollars are being spent for treatment of these problems that result in less than optimal outcomes. Clinicians who care for injured workers continually search for enhanced innovative approaches to treatment that will result in improved outcomes, reduced time away from work, and improved patient satisfaction.
Unfortunately, patients are still being treated with conventional methods developed 20–30 years ago. These methods are often shown to be ineffective in terms of returning the injured workers to their original jobs without restrictions. Despite what is considered to be the definitive treatment, workers are often left with considerable impairment, and are unable to return to their original job.
It is time for a conceptual shift in the treatment of these debilitating, and often frustrating injuries. Many similiarities can be drawn between the athletic and industrial population. A considerable percentage of injuries in sports or musculoskeletal medicine are related to overuse, caused by the repetitive nature of skills for a specific sport. These injuries are often the same types of injuries that occur in workers because of the repetitive nature of their jobs; however, the treatment approaches by the medical community can be markedly different.
Athletes and employees use their musculoskeletal system to perform their sport or job. If an athlete is injured, one goal of the medical team is to return the athlete as quickly as possible without risk of further injury. The contribution by a worker on the production line is not any less valuable than the athlete. Therefore, the employee deserves the same commitment and attention from the medical team as the athlete.
Some physicians assume that patients with work related injuries have less motivation to get better than injured athletes. However, with more practical experience, most have changed their perspective because persistent pain is a tremendous demotivator. Most workers will gladly perform their job (a) if they do not have pain and (b) if after working a full day they are able to pursue outside interests without disabling pain. Although there are exceptions to the rule, most of the cases support this perception. Most physicians of sports medicine rely on the same model or protocol that they use in their practice to treat patients for workers' compensation. This model requires patients to be active participants in the process, which can be particularly useful when treating patients who seem to lack motivation, or have encountered chronic pain.
There are four key elements in the sports medicine model that contribute to the success of this approach:
(1) Prevention: use of preventive and protective equipment while working or performing the event. The least expensive injury is the one you never have to treat.
(2) Conditioning: training that strengthens potential areas of weakness and enhances performance at work. Better adaptation to handle the demands of the job or activity.
(3) Early intervention or identification: diagnose the injury as quickly as possible and initiate measures to decrease the severity of disability.
(4) Progressive treatment: rehabilitation that improves flexibility, muscular balance, and other factors that may have contributed to the injury and may prevent future injury.
Finally, it is important to treat industrial athletes as comprehensively and intensely as you would any competitive athlete, providing guidance in safety practices, appropriate prevention, and conditioning practices, as well as facilitating access to innovative approaches to treatment that carry the greatest opportunity to yield positive outcomes.
Bringing the sports medicine model to the industrial setting can reduce the medical and non-medical expenditures related to repetitive stress injuries. To have the greatest impact, the medical team needs to have the same level of understanding about the demands of a specific job, just as a sports medicine team physician understands the demands of a specific sport or position. The goal of returning competitive athletes to their functional status before their injuries should be just as aggressively pursued for industrial athletes. In a competitive business environment, it is crucial to have a healthy, strong, highly motivated team to get the job done.
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