In 2019, the CDC estimated that 2.4 million workers sustained work-related injuries. Work injuries carry a unique set of stress for the injured worker combining the recovery challenges with the unknown ability to return to work.
Many patients are prescribed physical or occupational therapy to address pain and loss of function associated with their injury. Often, the injured workers can fully recover and return to their prior physical ability. Yet achieving this goal only addresses one of the two concerns for the injured worker. After regaining function, the injured worker is often left wondering if they will be able to make a full return to work.
A work conditioning program is designed to replicate a patient’s essential job demands in intensity and duration. It’s a valuable program for both the employee and the employer, allowing for optimal outcomes and positioning both parties for long-term success. A work conditioning program accomplishes this by allowing the injured worker to practice their job demands and reduce the associated fear of activity.
At its core, work conditioning allows the injured worker to safely practice their required job demands to improve their tolerance and endurance to these tasks. This concept is standard practice in one of our nation’s largest industries, sports.
After an injury, a major league baseball player will often be cleared to play but will first spend time in the minor leagues. This is often called a “rehab assignment” and allows players to practice hitting, running, sliding, throwing, and catching. This program is advantageous for both the player and the team as it enables the player to practice their job demands in a controlled environment when the stakes are not as high.
This same concept can be applied to the injured worker in work conditioning. Work conditioning allows the injured worker to build their tolerance to repetitive movements, increase strength with tasks, and improve overall endurance to job demands over an entire shift. All of this is achieved in a safe and controlled environment and under the guidance of a physical therapist.
Fear of pain and activity can be a significant factor in a patient’s recovery. In fact, studies have shown that psychological factors may influence pain intensity, physician visits, and disability more than physical factors like strength and range of motion.2 When patients initially engage in work demands post-injury, they may feel discomfort, soreness, and even pain. While this is a natural part of the recovery process, it may contribute to the patient’s fear of that activity. When a patient believes an activity can cause them harm, which may not be true, the patients may engage in avoidance behaviors which lead to further disability and disuse.3
A well-crafted work conditioning program is ideal for addressing fear and avoidance behaviors during job activities. Work conditioning programs allow the patients to experience work tasks that may be sore but are safe. A physical therapist can provide guidance and gather feedback from the injured worker that allows them to practice work tasks at a sore but safe intensity. With time, the injured worker can reduce fear and avoidance behaviors as they observe themselves successfully performing job demands without causing harm.
Work conditioning programs are a win-win! The employee is assured of their physical ability to perform their job demands, and the employer is getting a fully engaged, confident, and productive employee. If you believe a work conditioning program would be appropriate for you or your employee contact Athletico’s Work4U® department at 888-8Work4U (888-896-7548)
*Per federal guidelines, beneficiaries of plans such as Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, VHA and other federally funded plans are not eligible for free assessments.
The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.
1. “Fast Facts- Traumatic Occupational Injuries.” Centers for Disease Control and Preven-tion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 Aug. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/injury/fastfacts.html.
2. Development of a Yellow Flag Assessment Tool for Orthopaedic Physical Therapists: Results From the Optimal Screening for Prediction of Referral and Outcome (OSPRO) Cohort. Trevor A. Lentz, Jason M. Beneciuk, Joel E. Bialosky, Giorgio Zeppieri, Jr., Yunfeng Dai, Samuel S. Wu, and Steven Z. George. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 2016 46:5, 327-343
3. Christine M van Vliet, MSc, Ann Meulders, PhD, Linda M G Vancleef, PhD, Johan W S Vlaeyen, PhD, The Perceived Opportunity to Avoid Pain Paradoxically Increases Pain-Related Fear Through Increased Threat Appraisals, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Volume 55, Issue 3, March 2021, Pages 216–227, https://doi.org/10.1093/abm/kaaa045