Employer must still pay for gradual-onset back pain, court rules

Oct 7 2011
An Arkansas state appellate court affirmed a Workers' Compensation Commission award in favor of a tire shop employee disabled from gradual-onset back pain, regardless of whether she was able to pinpoint when and how her injury occurred, according to the judges' opinion.

The tire shop tried to overturn the ruling by arguing that the employee couldn't prove she was injured on the job and was not credible. The court responded by saying that even though the injury has to arise while on the job, a gradual-onset injury is exempt from identifying a specific incident. Furthermore, proof of what caused an injury does not always need medical evidence and often depends on a witness' credibility, the judges wrote.

The spinal cord that connects the brain to the rest of the body is protected by the vertebrae, the facet joints connecting the bones and the intervertebral discs that act as shock absorbers. Back pain may be the result of injury, disease or mechanical wear and tear on any of these structures, as well as the surrounding muscles and ligaments, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Other risk factors for back pain include smoking, obesity and occupational hazards, NIAMS said. The latter two can place additional physical demands on the back that may lead to injury.

Court documents further stated that the former employee did not experience back pain before working for the tire shop. Her job required her to push and pull heavy objects, which she said caused intermittent back pain starting in 2003. In 2008, she began seeking medical attention for back pain, which she initially did not report as work-related because she thought it was caused by her menstrual cycle. However, further tests indicated she may have had degenerative disc disease, for which she began receiving physical therapy and medications.

When she returned to work, her pain came back and radiated to her leg. She was diagnosed with a ruptured disc, prompting medication injections. During the next year, she went through several cycles of pain and treatment, including additional medications and surgery to remove herniated discs. Meanwhile, doctors told her she had sleep apnea because she was obese, leading her to have lap-band surgery.

Even though she was able to return to work for light duty at one point in time, the tire shop fired her for missing so much work.

After Workers' Comp decided the former employee's injuries resulted from her job, they awarded her with reimbursement for medical treatment and disability. The tire shop appealed by noting her obesity and questioning her credibility. Specifically, they argued she was not forthright about when she was injured, her ability to work and altercations she had in previous personal relationships. However, the appellate court ruled that decisions about her credibility and the nature of her gradual-onset back pain were at the discretion of Workers' Comp, and the court affirmed their rulings.

There are several things people can do to avoid back pain, according to NIAMS. These include maintaining a healthy weight, exercises to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles and proper lifting techniques that bear an object's weight on the hips and legs instead of the spine.