Epidemiology of low back pain

Baillieres Clin Rheumatol. 1992 Oct;6(3):559-73. doi: 10.1016/s0950-3579(05)80127-x.


At present, although there have been many epidemiological studies of risk factors for low back pain, there are few risk factors established in prospective studies; and our understanding of them remains relatively crude. Individuals in jobs requiring manual materials handling, particularly repeated heavy lifting and lifting while twisting, are at increased risk of back pain leading to work absence. In addition, exposure to whole-body vibration and job requirements for static postures are associated with back pain. Individual trunk strength has not been consistently demonstrated as associated with back pain; although there is some suggestion that when work requirements for heavy lifting exceed individual capacities, back pain is more likely to occur. The pattern of peak age at onset in the 20's is consistent with back pain development early in working life. Among other individual characteristics, only cigarette smoking has consistently been associated with back pain; and the biological mechanism for this finding is not understood. Evidence with respect to spinal flexibility, aerobic capacity, educational attainment and other variables is suggestive but not consistent. There is some evidence that the individual's relation to work, expressed as job satisfaction or supervisor rating, is also related to work absence due to back pain. While it is possible to describe, however crudely, the characteristics placing people at risk for back pain leading to work absence and/or medical attention, the problem of predicting chronicity and thus identifying patients for more intensive clinical intervention remains unresolved. At this time, only age of the patient and certain clinical features of the back pain such as the presence of sciatic symptoms, duration of the current episode, and history of prior episodes are consistently demonstrated predictors. In chronic patients, there is suggestive evidence that spinal flexibility, trunk strength, and certain psychological characteristics such as coping skills, fear and avoidance of pain or movement, job satisfaction, attribution of fault and hysterical or hypochondriacal features are associated with treatment failure. In addition, there is suggestive evidence that the availability of alternative work placement may allow for earlier return to work than otherwise. While the availability of disability compensation in excess of usual wages may serve as a disincentive to return to work. The latter-cited remain to be verified, while findings in chronic patients remain to be tested in acute. Further, the role of physical demands of work in duration of back pain episodes has not been well studied.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Costs and Cost Analysis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Life Style
  • Low Back Pain / economics
  • Low Back Pain / epidemiology*
  • Low Back Pain / etiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology