Occupational noise and arthritis

Photo credit: Yury Kim

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Is occupational noise exposure associated with arthritis? A new report in BMC Public Health suggests that it might be. The authors used data collected by the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey to correlate occupational noise exposure with both osteoarthritis — or “wear and tear” arthritis — and the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis.

The authors postulate possible causal mechanisms for this association, including the fact that noise exposure increases various stress hormones and other chemicals related to inflammation. Both recommended and permissible limits for occupational noise exposure are widely considered to be too high because they don’t protect all exposed workers from noise-induced hearing loss. These limits need to be revised downwards for multiple reasons.

But I am skeptical of any real causal relationship between occupational noise exposure and arthritis. Maybe those working in noisy occupations have more physically demanding jobs, which could explain increased osteoarthritis, but that doesn’t explain the increased prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis.  As my mentors stressed over the years, correlation isn’t causation. In the era of automated large data analysis, many statistical associations can be found. These may be helpful in suggesting further research, but sometimes they’re just statistically random correlations.

Regardless of whether there actually is a causal relationship between occupational noise exposures and arthritis, both workers and the public would be better off with more quiet in all spaces. A quieter world will be a better and healthier world for all.

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