Little is known about the sick-leave experiences of workers who make a workers' compensation claim for back pain. Our objective is to describe the 1-year patterns of sick-leave and the health outcomes of a cohort of workers who make a workers' compensation claim for back pain. We studied a cohort of 1,831 workers from five large US firms who made incident workers' compensation claims for back pain between January 1, 1999 and June 30, 2002. Injured workers were interviewed 1 month (n = 1,321), 6 months (n = 810) and 1 year (n = 462) following the onset of their pain. We described the course of back pain using four patterns of sick-leave: (1) no sick-leave, (2) returned to worked and stayed, (3) multiple episodes of sick-leave and (4) not yet returned to work. We described the health outcomes as back and/or leg pain intensity, functional limitations and health-related quality of life. We analyzed data from participants who completed all follow-up interviews (n = 457) to compute the probabilities of transition between patterns of sick-leave. A significant proportion of workers experienced multiple episodes of sick-leave (30.2%; 95% CI 25.0-35.1) during the 1-year follow-up. The proportion of workers who did not report sick-leave declined from 42.4% (95% CI 39.0-46.1) at 1 month to 33.6% (28.0-38.7) at 1 year. One year after the injury, 2.9% (1.6-4.9) of workers had not yet returned to work. Workers who did not report sick-leave and those who returned and stayed at work reported better health outcomes than workers who experienced multiple episodes of sick-leave or workers who had not returned to work. Almost a third of workers with an incident episode of back pain experience recurrent spells of work absenteeism during the following year. Our data suggest that stable patterns of sick-leave are associated with better health.