Objectives: To establish whether review articles provide consistent conclusions on associations between workplace psychosocial factors and musculoskeletal pain and, if differences exist, to explore whether this is related to the methods used.
Methods: Reviews, reported up to February 2007, that included consideration of workplace psychosocial factors and upper limb, back or knee pain were identified through searches of multiple databases. The specific work-related psychosocial factors considered were job demands, support, job autonomy and job satisfaction. The conclusions of each review on one or more of the psychosocial/musculoskeletal pain associations were extracted.
Results: 15 review articles were identified that considered one or more of the regional pain syndromes included in the study. For back pain, the most consistent conclusions (four reviews positive out of six) were with high job demands and low job satisfaction. The studies of upper limb pain were exclusively related to shoulder and/or neck pain, and the most consistent positive conclusions were with high and low job demands (four reviews positive out of six and two reviews positive out of three, respectively). For knee pain, only a single review was identified. For individual reviews of back and upper limb pain, there were marked differences in the number of associations concluded to be positive between reviews.
Conclusions: The reasons for reviews coming to different conclusions included that they were often evaluating different bodies of evidence (according to their search criteria, the year when the review was conducted, the role that quality assessment played in whether studies contributed to evidence, and the combination of risk factors addressed in individual studies), but more important was whether the review specified explicit criteria for making conclusions on strength of evidence. These conclusions emphasise the importance of developing standardised methods for conducting such evaluations of existing evidence and the importance of new longitudinal studies for clarifying the temporal relationship between psychosocial factors and musculoskeletal pain in the workplace.