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DoD asks helicopter pilots about back pain

Apr. 8, 2011 - 05:36AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 8, 2011 - 05:36AM  |  
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Online survey

Current and former military helicopter pilots can respond to the survey anonymously here.

Helicopter pilots know about back pain — the dull ache that settles in after hours of leaning forward in a vibrating seat. Many suffer in silence because they're afraid of being grounded.

The Pentagon is asking them to open up — without identifying themselves — so it can get an in-depth look at back pain, from causes to costs to impact on mission readiness. Their answers could help the military come up with new seat designs and more effective pain-prevention techniques.

Defense officials have http://www.dodhelicopterseatsurvey.com">put their questions online through April. The survey, conducted by consulting agency R Cubed, is open to helicopter pilots in every service — and even those retired or separated.

Back pain "has never been really quantified" and is underreported because of helicopter pilots' reluctance to talk about it, said RaNae Contarino, a partner with R Cubed.

The survey, which should take about five minutes, asks respondents for details about their flying hours, experience, type and intensity of pain, and whether they have sought medical treatment, said Dick Healing, an R Cubed partner.

Other studies — many older and much smaller in scope — estimate as many as 90 percent of helicopter pilots suffer back pain.

Howard Whitfield is all too familiar with the in-flight hunched posture that he describes as "at times uncomfortable."

"Remember, most helicopters are not air conditioned, and military pilots wear a flight suit, boots, gloves, helmet, survival vest, flotation gear and, in combat, a flak jacket or armored vest," said Whitfield, a retired Marine colonel. "All of that adds to the physical stress and compounds vibration stress as well as high temperatures."

One study supports Whitfield's point, citing protective gear as one of several possible causes of back pain — in both the helicopter community and the military overall.

Many studies list several contributors to back pain: constant vibration, poor posture, long hours in the cockpit and too little seat padding.

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