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Low back pain - how common is it and how often does it cause disability?

At a glance:
This study established that low back pain is a common condition in Australia.
Perspectives:
Employee
Low back pain is a common condition. It is experienced more often by Australians than is the common cold. 

The results of this survey suggest that about 8 out of 10 people have had an incidence of low back pain at some time in their lives.

In the 6 months prior to the survey, 64% of participants had experienced lower back pain, with 13% having pain every day.

Some people in the community believe that if you develop back pain it is likely to be a long term problem with a bad outcome. This study shows back pain is experienced by most people at some point in their lives. Other studies show that the best health outcome is achieved through not being frightened by a back problem and returning to everyday activities as soon as possible. Talk to your treating practitioner,
treating practitioner
A health professional that treats patients. In return to work this may include doctors, physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, psychologists, masseurs, etc.
 ensure you understand your condition and what to expect. 

This study also indicates that many people around you, in your family, workplace, and community, will have had similar experiences. Hopefully this will assist their understanding of your pain, restrictions, and the best rehabilitation
rehabilitation
The process of helping a person back to their former abilities and quality of life (or as close as possible) after injury or a medical condition.
 approach.
Employer
Low Back Pain is a common medical condition that 8 out of 10 people experience in their lives and 7 out of 10 people will experience in any 12 months. The majority of people suffer an uncomplicated episode of back pain that does not interfere with their activities at home or at work. 

In any six month period 1 in 10 people will have an episode that does affect their ability to function. 

Most back complaints settle down on their own, however, people who are experiencing back pain can become worried that their condition will continue into the long term.  A small proportion of people do develop a long term disability. 

An employer can lessen the risk of long term disability
disability
A condition or function that leaves a person unable to do tasks that most other people can do.
 by offering goodwill and support to workers experiencing low back pain and proactively managing their return to work.   Your employee should grow to understand their condition and, with your help, learn to manage it.
Treater
The study demonstrates that back pain is a normal facet of life. 10% of the population will experience an episode of significant disability secondary to their back pain in any six month period. 

It is important for the patient to understand their problem is common, and that research suggests their outcome is favourable, particularly if they make their best effort to return to normal activities.
Insurer
While most back complaints settle down on their own, some people who experience back pain become worried their condition will continue into the long term. While a small proportion of people with low back pain do develop a long term disability, this study indicates that for most back pain is a normal facet of life. Other research suggests the best way to reduce long term disability is to encourage sufferers of low back pain to return to work and other normal activities. 

Low Back Pain is a common medical condition that 8 out of 10 people experience in their lives and 7 out of 10 people will experience in any 12 month period. Most of the time, back pain does not interfere with a person's normal activity.

In the next 6 months, 10% of Australians will have an episode of back pain that does interfere with their ability to function. 
Original Article, Authors & Publication Details:
B. F. Walker1, R. Muller1, and W. D. Grant2 (2004). 

Low back pain in Australian adults: Prevalence and associated disability. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics; 27(4):238-244

1 School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.
2 Center for Evidence-Based Practice, Department of Family Medicine, State University of New York, Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY
Background, Study Objectives, How It Was Done:
 
Many people who experience back pain are worried they have a condition that is going to cause long term problems.   It is important to understand how common health conditions are and what their usual course is. This information assists people to know and understand their health problem.   This is particularly important for back pain.

This was a study of adults in the Australian community. A survey was mailed in June 2001 to a random sample of 3000 Australian adults selected from the Electoral Roll.

1913 surveys were completed and returned and used for the study. This was a response rate of 69%.  53% of survey participants were female and 47% were male.

The survey asked participants direct questions (eg, ‘‘Have you had low back pain in the past?'') about whether they had ever experienced back pain, or whether they had experienced back pain within a specific period of time, such as within the last 12 months.  Other questions included age at first episode of back pain and whether the person had low back pain every day.

The study also looked at the people who responded to the study, to see if the group was somehow significantly different in features such as age, gender, occupation etc, from the rest of the Australian population.
Study Findings:
69% of people who were sent the survey responded. There was no material difference between those who responded to the survey and the rest of the population.

26% of those who responded to the survey indicated they had back pain at the time the survey was conducted. 68% indicated they had experienced back pain in the 12 months before the survey was completed, and 79% advised they had experienced back pain at some point in their lives.

8% of survey participants reported they had experienced their first episode of back pain in the preceding 12 months, with the average age at which low back pain was first experienced being 28 years.

In the 6 months before the survey was completed:
  • 64% of the survey group had experienced lower back pain, with 13% having low back pain every day.
  • 43% of the total survey group had experienced back pain they described as low intensity, and the pain had caused low disability.
  • 11% had experienced high intensity-pain, but still reported low disability from this pain.
  • Another 11% said they had experienced high intensity, high-disability low back pain. 
From these survey results it can be seen that the majority of those with low back pain in the past 6 months experienced either no disability or low disability.
Conclusions:
Low back pain is a common condition in the Australian adult population. Most people have experienced back pain, and nearly half the study population report low back pain in the six months preceding the survey. 10% of the survey group indicated a period of disability due to back pain in the six months prior to the survey.

Whilst a period of disability following low back pain is common, the outlook in the longer-term is generally good.
References:
No PubMed abstract
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