Study design: A cross-sectional survey was performed.
Objective: To estimate the extent of low back pain as a public health problem.
Summary of background data: Health surveys converge on very high estimates of low back pain in general populations, but few studies have included severity criteria in their definition and conclusions. Because it is unlikely that interventions will influence the prevalence of minimal and infrequent symptoms, greater attention should be paid to characteristics of low back pain that indicate some impact on the life of survey respondents.
Methods: Two regions participated in the MONICA (MONitoring of trends and determinants in CArdiovascular disease) project in Switzerland. Participants randomly selected from the general population completed a standard self-administered questionnaire on cardiovascular risk factors. A special section on low back pain was added in the third (1992-1993) MONICA survey and completed by 3227 participants.
Results: A regional difference found in the 12-month prevalence rate disappeared with the inclusion of severity criteria. Low back pain over more than seven cumulated days was reported among men by 20.2% (age range, 25-34 years) to 28.5% (age range, 65-74 years), respectively, among women by 31.1% to 38.5%. Similar rates of reduction in activity (professional, housekeeping, and leisure time) and medical consultation (conventional and nonconventional) motivated by low back pain characterized the two participating regions. The cumulative duration of pain was related to all the indicators showing the impact of low back pain on everyday life.
Conclusions: Determining the cumulative duration of low back pain over the preceding year is a straightforward task, and a cutoff at 1 week seems appropriate for distinguishing between low- and high-impact low back pain.