Expansive New Study Found Back Pain a Global Epidemic
Back Pain Affects 10% of People Worldwide
A new, extensive, multi-national study concluded that lower back pain associated with workplace factors accounts for a third of all work-related disability worldwide. Back pain was most common in Western Europe, followed in descending order by North Africa and the Middle East. The Caribbean and Latin America had the fewest reported cases of back pain-related disability. The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia, the University of Washington in the United States, and the UK’s Royal Cornwall Hospital.
The report, published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, found that lower back pain caused more disability than any other condition, affecting nearly one in 10 people worldwide and becoming increasingly common as people aged. The study highlights that while lower back pain is not generally linked to a disease, it can still be debilitating and emotionally draining. It can be caused by a variety of factors, such as sitting too long at a desk, bad posture, improper form when lifting, wearing high heels, lugging around a heavy backpack and even texting too much, because people tend to hunch over when using their cell phones.
What Causes Back Pain?
The lead author, Professor Tim Driscoll of the Sydney School of Public Health, said the culprit is ergonomic exposures at work, which include lifting, jerking or forceful movement, and awkward positions. Even vibration can lead to a debilitating condition.
“The people most at risk were those who work in the agricultural sector and those aged 35 to 65,” explains Driscoll. “However, low back pain is a problem for people in many occupations. Based on published research, agricultural sector workers were almost four times as likely to develop low back pain disability as any other group of workers. These factors are common in the agricultural sector.”
Work Related Disability
In the study, work-related disability was recorded as disability adjusted life years (DALYs), which was calculated using factors that combine years of life lost due to premature death and years of life lived with disability. So for example, in 2010 there were nearly 22 million DALYs worldwide caused by workplace-related low back pain. The condition was spread fairly evenly in all regions among age groups, although men had 13.5 million and women had 8.3 million.
“Lower back pain arising from ergonomic exposures at work is a major cause of disability worldwide,” Driscoll concluded. “There is a need for improved information on exposure risks, particularly in developing countries, to help better understand the burden. This should lead to better prevention of back pain and injury, as well as decreased lost work time due to back pain.”
Categories of Back Pain
The researchers classified back pain into four categories: severity, whether the pain was chronic, whether it was acute, and whether it involved referred pain in the leg. Each category was given a ranking for the degree of disability it caused. Then the researchers reviewed how many people are affected by lower back pain, how many people are diagnosed with lower back pain for a specific time period, when (if) the lower back pain went away, and how long it lasted.
The researchers found no relevant studies on duration and remission, and no evidence that lower back pain is associated with a higher risk of death.
The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Australian Commonwealth Department of Health and Aging, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Aging and Alzheimer’s Research Foundation.