The relation between common rheumatic diseases such as osteoarthrosis, arthralgia without definite signs of osteoarthrosis, subacromial shoulder pain, different forms of tendinitis, low back pain and neck pain, and the level of formal education, occupational workload and some lifestyle factors were examined in 502 of 900 randomly selected subjects aged 50-70 years. The group with rheumatic complaints had a higher proportion of subjects with a lower level of formal education (less than or equal to eight years) by bivariate analysis. In multivariate analysis, the major risk factors were: a self rated heavy workload (odds ratio (OR) 6.4), sleep disturbance (OR 3.6), and advanced age (OR 2.0 per five year increase) for osteoarthrosis; a self rated heavy workload for subacromial shoulder pain (OR 5.4) and low back pain (OR 4.8); and a self rated heavy workload (OR 8.0) and female sex (OR 4.8) for neck pain. A self rated heavy workload was strongly correlated with a low level of formal education. A heavy workload (i.e. previous or present principal occupation) could only be confirmed in the groups with neck pain and low back pain on the basis of available occupational classification data. Neck pain was thus associated with occupations entailing repetitive tasks and awkward posture with respect to the neck, shoulders, and back. Low back pain was associated with occupations entailing awkward posture with respect to the neck, shoulders, and back, and occupations entailing exposure to vibration and heavy manual work. It is concluded that, in a cross sectional sample of an elderly population, a low level of formal education and self rated heavy physical work are associated with the occurrence of adult rheumatic complaints, though the self rated heavy workload could only be verified in the groups with neck pain and low back pain. There correlations between heavy work and low back pain, and especially neck pain, suggest that successful prevention would mean a substantial economic gain to the community. Whether the level of education is a marker of risk factors other than a heavy occupational workload needs further evaluation.
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