Study design: A prospective cohort study with identical questionnaires and inclusion criteria was performed.
Objectives: To compare in six different countries the frequencies and effects of the common medical interventions used for patients with low back pain who are work incapacitated.
Summary of background data: Low back pain is a huge problem with increasing costs for health care, industry, and society.
Methods: Cohorts of employed men and women ages 18 to 59 years who had been sick-listed (100%) for a minimum of 90 days because of low back pain were recruited in Denmark, Germany, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States. The subjects received three separate questionnaires with identical questions after 90 days, 1 year, and 2 years. The questionnaires included separate questions about background factors, treatment, and the like, as well as validated scales such as the Hannover Activities of Daily Living, von Korff pain score, Short Form-36, and Karasek-Theorell. Working status was obtained from registers. Main outcome measures were working/not working, back function, and pain.
Results: All three questionnaires were completed by 2080 subjects in the six countries. With few exceptions, there were great similarities in the appointments, examinations, and treatments in the different countries. Considerable differences were found between the back surgery rates, which ranged from 6% in Sweden to 32% in the United States during the first 90 days of the study. Very few of the interventions had any noticeable positive effects on work resumption, pain, or back function. Back surgery in Sweden was a striking exception, positively affecting all three outcome measures. The frequencies of work resumption within the first year ranged from 73% in the Netherlands to 32% in Denmark.
Conclusions: Almost none of the commonly occurring and frequently practiced medical interventions for patients who are sick-listed because of low back pain had any positive effects on either the recorded health measures or work resumption.