Back pain still an issue for over 5 million Australians: Are we treating it right?

December 15, 2008

A new study by researchers at The George Institute for International Health has found that back pain is a reoccurring problem for five million Australians.

According to lead author, Professor Chris Maher, Director of Musculoskeletal Research at The George Institute, "After an episode of back pain resolves, one in four people will experience a recurrence within one year. This explains why around 25% of the Australian population suffers from back pain at any one time."

Low back pain is the most prevalent and costly musculoskeletal condition in Australia(1), estimated to cost up to $1billion per annum with indirect costs exceeding $8billion(2). It is also the most common health condition causing older Australians to be absent from the labour force.(3)

According to Professor Maher, patients and clinicians need to shift their focus to prevention. "We tend to treat the pain when it's there, but when you recover, patients rarely take steps to prevent the problem from returning. People understand the message about lifting correctly but heavy lifting is only one of the risk factors for developing back pain. What many people do not understand is that some of the risk factors for back pain are also the risk factors for other chronic diseases like heart disease. My advice is that people should take a similar approach to back health, as they do for heart health - eating right, exercise and a healthy lifestyle is definitely good for your heart, and also your spine," he added.

"Good, previous research has shown participation in an exercise program after the original episode of low back pain is highly effective in preventing recurrence. Those in the exercise group had half the rate of recurrence of the control group. Other studies have indicated that strengthening muscles and developing fitness show some benefit in avoiding recurring back pain. Mental stress also increases the risk of back pain so including stress management in a health promotion approach would be a sensible way to reduce your chances of back pain. Just paying attention to lifting correctly is probably not enough, a holistic approach is really best."
Researchers reviewed patients who had recovered from their initial back pain within six weeks. Patients saw a range of treatments from general practitioners, physiotherapists and chiropractors in Australia. 353 patients were followed over one year and contacted at six weeks, three months and 12 months.

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Australia's health 2000: the seventh biennial health report of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 7th ed. Canberra: AIHW, 2000.
  2. Walker B, Muller R, Grant W. Low back pain in Australian adults: the economic burden. Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health 2003;15(2):79-87.
  3. Schofield DJ, Shrestha RN, Passey ME, Earnest A, Fletcher SL. Chronic disease and labour force participation among older Australians. MJA 2008; 189 (8): 447-450

Research Australia

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