Introduction:

It has been well-documented that the amount of time spent in front of the computer by female office workers has led to an increase in pain prevalence in their neck, shoulders and upper back. The main risk factors identified include the female gender, as well as poor posture and static muscle contractions adopted during visual display unit (VDU) work. Research suggests that this increase in upper extremity pain is becoming a growing concern amongst employers; specifically due to the associated negative socioeconomic consequences; such as decreased worker productivity, the inability to perform job tasks and increased workers compensation costs. The significance of this problem warranted an investigation into identifying an appropriate exercise intervention that is efficient in relieving upper extremity pain in female office workers; further motivated by the fact that sufficient evidence has emerged to support the effectiveness of exercise therapy in treating and preventing neck, shoulder and/or upper back pain in office workers.

Methods:

A group of 60 female office workers, with pain in their neck, shoulders and/or upper back, were recruited for the study. The participants were aged between 30-55 years old and performed visual display unit (VDU) work for at least 4 hours per day. Participants were allocated into either the control (n=30) or experimental (n=30) group. After baseline assessments, the control group continued their normal daily activity, whilst the experimental group completed 18 Pilates sessions (a minimum of 12 sessions) over a 6-9 week period. Measurements included height & mass; physical activity level; barriers to being active; pain prevalence & intensity; neck & shoulder range f motion (ROM); shoulder strength & scapular stability.

Results:

Baseline results showed that 91.7% of the study participants were ‘sedentary’ & the top 3 barriers to being active were identified as lack of willpower, lack of time & lack of energy. The neck & shoulders were the most prevalent pain sites during the past 12 months & past 7 days. After the 9-week Pilates exercise programme intervention, the experimental group reported 46.67% less pain in the neck, 66.67% less pain in the shoulders and 33.33% less pain in the upper back.  Pain intensity values averaged at 5.4 out of 10 at the start of the study; with a significant 33.3% decrease in the experimental group after the 9-week Pilates programme. The Pilates intervention also successfully increased neck & shoulder ROM to varying degrees, most significantly in neck lateral flexion, shoulder extension, shoulder abduction and left shoulder external rotation (ER). Additionally, the Pilates program produced improvements in shoulder strength; specifically in shoulder extension, shoulder internal rotation (IR) & shoulder ER. Although the improvements were statistically significant; the Pilates intervention was inadequate in increasing shoulder strength to above the desired norms for healthy individuals. All the study participants presented with scapular instability at the start of the study, however the 9-week Pilates programme significantly improved scapular stability in female office workers with neck, shoulder and/or upper back pain.

Conclusion:

The study showed that a 9-week Pilates exercise intervention successfully reduces neck, shoulder and/or upper back pain prevalence and intensity in female office workers; as well as increases neck and shoulder ROM, shoulder strength and improves scapular stability. This serves as clinical evidence for companies to promote the inclusion of Pilates as part of their corporate wellness program.  This would assist in integrating physical activity into the lifestyle of their female office workers, reducing the risk factors of upper extremity pain and their consequences.

Kimberly-Ann Van Zyl – Masters degree – Biokinetics

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