Back pain plagues helicopter pilots, says a ergonomic study

It might be a literally ‘high-flying’ profession, but helicopter pilots are exposed to vibratory environments and unfavourable working conditions, which over a period of time can cause health problems. One of the major symptoms of which is the onset of low back pain (LBP).

In an ergonomic study undertaken by IIT-Madras to evaluate the prevalence of LBP among helicopter pilots, it was found that the total flying hours and the average flying duration were two important underlying factors for LBP among them.

“Prolonged flying induces back ache in pilots. Strictly off-the-record statements by some senior pilots put it at about 100 per cent, but then there were no means to verify it! Our motivation for this study started from a curious struggle a chopper pilot had while in a party. After a chat with him, we got to know about low back pain and chopper flying, based on which this study was performed,” said Professor Venkatesh Balasubramanian.

Twenty Chetak helicopter pilots, with an average age and Body Mass Index of 36.55 years and 24.4 respectively, participated in the study. Their average flying hours per month was 21.15 hours and the average duration of their routine sortie was 2.06 hours.

“The study was done to objectively determine muscle fatigue induced in back and shoulder muscles due to helicopter [Chetak] flights on pilots using surface Electromyography (sEMG) and Rehabilitation Bioengineering Group Pain Scale (RBGPS). This study is preliminary to show the use of some of the tools that can be used to objectively evaluate muscle fatigue in pilots,” asserted the professor.. 

The pre and the post flight analysis indicated fatigue in both the trapezius and the erector spinae muscle groups. The correlation studies between the pain grades and the attributes of the pilots evidently pointed out that the total flying hours and the average flying duration were two important basis factors for the occurrence of LBP among helicopter pilots.

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