A Pain In The Neck


I’m suffering from a stiff neck at the moment. I am putting it down to spending too much time spent hunched over a computer. Averting my gaze from the screen and the blinking cursor I started to think about whether there were particular complaints or, as we would term them these days, industrial or occupational diseases which plagued certain types of worker. As you might expect, and happily for this post, there are and we will focus our attention on some of the more unusual.

The life of a Victorian chimney sweep was a dirty one, clambering up chimney stacks and cleaning out all the nooks and crannies. It was not unknown for the more diligent members of the profession to remove their clothing before scaling the stack in order to gain more flexibility to reach those awkward spots. Unfortunately for them, the soot and, more importantly, the carcinogens found in the soot found their own nooks and crannies, particularly around their private parts. Malignant sores formed there, principally on their scrotum, and so were known colloquially as soot-warts. Once established these sores would spread. Initially, it was thought that it was a form of venereal disease but eventually it was realised that it was a form of cancer. Chimney sweep’s  carcinoma or chimney sweep’s scrotum has the distinction of being the first recorded occupational disease.

You would think that the life of a clergyman would be more congenial. But all that bending and kneeling meant that often all of their bodyweight was concentrated on the lowest point of the knee. This led to the inflammation of the small sac of fluid that cushions the bones and tendons of the joint, the bursa. The result was a painful condition known as infrapatellar bursitis or more colloquially as Clergyman’s knee.

Another occupational disease affecting the knee was Baker’s knee and was a consequence of them putting all their weight on one leg when carrying their bread baskets. This skeletal condition caused the legs to bend inwards towards each other. So pronounced was the deformity that one contemporary Victorian source described the poor unfortunate’s legs as “closely resembl(ing) the right side of the letter K”.

There is a lot to be said for a hand-fashioned shoe and I for one have a lot of admiration for the cobbler’s skill. I have a pair of hand-made shoes and they fit like a glove. Of course, in the good old days before mass production all shoes were hand-made and the cobbler spent all day hammering nails into the soles of shoes. The problem was that the hammering caused dozens of tiny, painless fractures in the thigh bones. They healed naturally but the healing process caused a nasty-looking bone growth which became known as cobbler’s femur.

And finally (for now) we jump into our cars and expect them to start at the turn of our ignition key. In the early days of motoring your chauffeur would have to start the car from the outside using a starting handle. The problem was that quite often as the engine was coaxed into life it might suddenly backfire. This in turn caused the handle to shoot backwards into their hand, often causing a painful fracture to the radius. For obvious reasons this injury was known as Chauffeur’s fracture.

You know, my neck pain isn’t so bad after all. Until the next time.


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