Early nerve damage caused by repetitive strain injuries can trigger “sick worker” syndrome — characterized by malaise, fatigue and depression, and often mistaken for poor performance, according to a study by Ann Barr, Ph.D., and Mary Barbe, Ph.D., at Temple University’s College of Health Professions.
The study, “Increase in inflammatory cytokines in median nerves in a rat model of repetitive motion injury,” is published this month in the Journal of Neuroimmunology.
Repetitive strain injuries are the nation’s most common and costly occupational health problem, affecting hundreds of thousands of American workers and costing more than $20 billion a year in worker’s compensation, so employers have long been interested in the connection between the two conditions.
The purpose of the study was to observe early changes in nerves caused by repetitive strain that lead to chronic pain and eventual degenerative problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, tennis elbow or other serious neural and musculoskeletal injuries. The Temple researchers hope the findings could one day lead to early intervention techniques that would prevent permanent damage.
They discovered that nerve injuries caused by low-force, highly repetitive work can be blamed on an onslaught of cytokines — proteins that help start inflammation. These cytokines, known also to spark symptoms of malaise, appear in injured nerves as early as three weeks after the first signs of cell stress — much earlier than previously believed. As the nerve injury progressed, ever greater numbers of cytokines were made at the injury site.
Unexpectedly, the researchers also found that the cytokines affected the rats’ psychosocial responses. With so many cytokines entering the blood stream so early, some apparently traveled to the brain, sparking the rat version of “sick-worker” syndrome. “At three weeks, even before the rats experienced pain from their wrist injuries, we watched them self-regulate their work behavior,” said Barr. “With inflammatory proteins in the bloodstream, they began to slack off from completing their tasks.”
By five weeks to eight weeks, when cytokine production reached “peak” levels, some rats curled up in a ball and slept in between tasks.
By Eryn Jelesiewicz