The percentage of disability claims filed for joint disorders is rising significantly in Tennessee, according to recent claims data from Unum.
Each May, Unum releases the top causes of disability using its data as the world's largest provider of disability insurance. Over the past 10 years, Unum's short-term disability claims for joint disorders increased 60%, and long term disability claims for joint disorders are up 57%.
Many factors can contribute to the increase, but the state's high rate of obesity is largely to blame, said Greg Breter, senior vice president of benefits at Unum.
Short term disability causes in Tennessee in 2018
Joint disorders (9%)
Digestive system issues (7%)
Back disorders (excluding injuries) (6%)
Top causes of long term
disability in Tennessee in 2018:Cancer (13%)
Back disorders (11%)
Joint disorders (11%)
Cardiovascular issues (11%)
Source: Unum disability claims data
"Tennessee is definitely not alone, but it's certainly one of the states where we're seeing the percentage of disability claims filed for joint disorders rise significantly," he said. "Any time we see things jump off the page like that, we dig a little bit deeper."
There's a "direct correlation" between a high prevalence of obesity and increases in joint disorders, such as arthritis, and musculoskeletal disorders, Breter said. People staying in the workforce longer than they used to is also fueling the trend, he said, since the prevalence of arthritis rises steeply in older adults.
One in three Tennesseans are considered obese, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to health issues like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and certain types of cancer, extra weight can cause arthritis and problems with major joints, like knees and hips.
Obesity is defined as having a body mass index — a measurement of body fat based on height and weight that's often called BMI — equal to or greater than 30, and it's classified by the American Medical Association as a disease.
One study found that the risk for a common form of knee arthritis increased by 36% for every 2 units of BMI, or 5 kilograms of weight gain.
Marie Howell, a master of physical therapy and certified exercise expert at Peak Fitness and Physical Therapy, said she has seen firsthand the number of patients struggling with obesity and disability grow over the years. However, not only are patients heavier, they're often younger and less active overall.
"The sedentary lifestyle leads to decreased muscle strength, decreased flexibility. So it's not just the obesity that can lead to joint pain and disability," Howell said. "It's this vicious cycle. If you don't move, you get stiff and weak, and if you have pain you can't move."
She recommends taking regular breaks from the work day to move around and incorporating either 150 minutes of moderate exercise, such as mowing the lawn, swimming or hiking, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like running to get the heart rate up each week. In addition, two or three days of resistance work with weights, body resistance or exercise bands can help prevent future disability.
Bariatric surgery could also be an option for people who need to lose more than 100 pounds and have been unsuccessful shedding weight through diet and exercise alone.
Unum spokeswoman Kelly Spencer said the claims data is meant to raise awareness of how common conditions can cause disability and put workers at risk.
There's a one in four chance of disability for today's worker, according to the Social Security Administration. Millions of people experience disability each year, and disability insurance can help cover time away from work while people recover. However, only a third of the workforce has disability insurance, Spencer said.
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.