Little Progress Reducing Shoulder Claims
While the nationwide frequency of workplace injuries impacting other body parts, such as lower backs, continues on a downward trend, workers’ compensation experts say they have not seen a corresponding drop in workers suffering from shoulder problems.
Shoulder injuries can require longer recovery times than do other body parts, diminishing the likelihood of a quick return to work, several medical experts said.
“Shoulder claims are huge now,” with the joints of an aging workforce wearing down, said Liz Thompson, CEO at Encore Unlimited LLC, a case management company in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Treatment options are often expensive, particularly for older workers who are more likely to suffer accompanying comorbidities, she added.
Thompson recently analyzed the claims from one insurer client and found that 70 percent of those stemmed from extremity injuries, including many shoulder issues, she said.
Similarly, Judie Tsanopoulos, director of workers’ comp and loss control at St. Joseph Health System in Orange, Calif. said that beginning about three years ago she observed a rise in shoulder injuries and incidences of frozen shoulder.
“We see far more shoulders,” Tsanopoulos said.
When she drilled into her company claims data she found that women aged 40 to 60 years old accounted for many of those shoulder issues, she said.
Other workers’ compensation experts say they have not seen an overall increase in the frequency of shoulder-related injuries. Yet despite nationwide gains in reducing injuries to other body parts, shoulder injuries are not decreasing.
An NCCI Holdings Inc. report released on July 18 states, among other findings, that from 2008 to 2012 the frequency of lost-time claims for most body parts dropped an average of 13.9 percent.
“One notable exception is that the frequency of injuries involving the arm and shoulder, which represent more than 15 percent of all injuries, remained flat over the period,” dropping only 1 percent, according to NCCI’s frequency report.
In contrast, lower back claims dropped 15 percent during the period while upper back claims dropped 7 percent. Upper back claims showed the least amount of claims decline next to the 1 percent drop in arm and shoulders among body parts.
NCCI’s report stated that the flattening trend in arm and shoulder frequency “may be influenced by an older workforce, where rotator cuff injuries are not uncommon.”
Prior to the flattening in lost-time arm and shoulder claims seen from 2008 to 2012, injuries to those body parts had been declining. They decreased 13 percent from 2004 to 2008 while frequency for all lost-time injuries dropped 17 percent, said Jim Davis, an NCCI director and actuary.
In addition to an aging population more likely to suffer shoulder injuries, more treatments may be occurring today when workers complain about shoulder pain.
In contrast to 20 years ago, doctors are increasingly able to diagnose and address shoulder pain complaints that previously went untreated, said Ira Posner, an MD, orthopedic surgeon, and consultant to third party administrator Broadspire.
“So you are seeing a lot more people with a diagnosis now that we couldn’t make before,” Posner said. “People would present with shoulder pain and we didn’t know why they hurt — now we know why they hurt.”
The improved medical quality means doctors are able to help more workers while workers’ comp payers may now be feeling the increase in shoulder treatments.
“That is why you are seeing more pathology in the shoulder being treated, because we understand the shoulder better and we are able to do more for complaints of shoulder pain,” Posner said.
One cost mitigating factor, however, stems from a shift from conducting mostly open shoulder surgeries to performing more orthoscopic and outpatient treatments, added Jacob Lazarovic, senior VP and chief medical officer at Broadspire.
Still, shoulder injuries typically require more recovery time than do other body parts, experts said.
“Recovering from shoulder surgeries is a pretty prolonged process in the best of cases, but it would be even more prolonged for older workers,” Lazarovic said.
The complexity of shoulder joints adds to the problem, medical experts said.
In addition to a longer recovery time, shoulder injuries such as those requiring rotator cuff surgeries make it challenging for employers to return workers to certain jobs, such as those requiring overhead lifting, said Teresa Bartlett, senior VP and medical director at Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc.
“Shoulder injuries in general are problematic,” Bartlett said. “Regardless of age, it’s the mechanism of the shoulder that tends to be very difficult.”
In response, Thompson at Encore Unlimited is seeing employers increasingly interested in shoulder protection and corresponding loss control programs.
“Anytime you have an injury group that is driving your claims costs, as an employer you have to evaluate what can you do to eliminate some of that risk,” such as making sure the worker fits the job, she said.