Background: Physical conditioning as part of a return to work strategy aims to improve work status for workers on sick leave due to back pain. This is the second update of a Cochrane Review (originally titled 'Work conditioning, work hardening and functional restoration for workers with back and neck pain') first published in 2003, updated in 2010, and updated again in 2013.
Objectives: To assess the effectiveness of physical conditioning as part of a return to work strategy in reducing time lost from work and improving work status for workers with back pain. Further, to assess which aspects of physical conditioning are related to a faster return to work for workers with back pain.
Search methods: We searched the following databases to March 2012: CENTRAL, MEDLINE (from 1966), EMBASE (from 1980), CINAHL (from 1982), PsycINFO (from 1967), and PEDro.
Selection criteria: Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and cluster RCTs that studied workers with work disability related to back pain and who were included in physical conditioning programmes.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed risk of bias. We used standard methodological procedures expected by The Cochrane Collaboration.
Main results: We included 41 articles reporting on 25 RCTs with 4404 participants. Risk of bias was low in 16 studies.Three studies involved workers with acute back pain, eight studies workers with subacute back pain, and 14 studies workers with chronic back pain.In 14 studies, physical conditioning as part of a return to work strategy was compared to usual care. The physical conditioning mostly consisted of graded activity with work-related exercises aimed at increasing back strength and flexibility, together with a set date for return to work. The programmes were divided into a light version with a maximum of five sessions, or an intense version with more than five sessions up to full time or as inpatient treatment.For acute back pain, there was low quality evidence that both light and intense physical conditioning programmes made little or no difference in sickness absence duration compared with care as usual at three to 12 months follow-up (3 studies with 340 workers).For subacute back pain, the evidence on the effectiveness of intense physical conditioning combined with care as usual compared to usual care alone was conflicting (four studies with 395 workers). However, subgroup analysis showed low quality evidence that if the intervention was executed at the workplace, or included a workplace visit, it may have reduced sickness absence duration at 12 months follow-up (3 studies with 283 workers; SMD -0.42, 95% CI -0.65 to -0.18).For chronic back pain, there was low quality evidence that physical conditioning as part of integrated care management in addition to usual care may have reduced sickness absence days compared to usual care at 12 months follow-up (1 study, 134 workers; SMD -4.42, 95% CI -5.06 to -3.79). What part of the integrated care management was most effective remained unclear. There was moderate quality evidence that intense physical conditioning probably reduced sickness absence duration only slightly compared with usual care at 12 months follow-up (5 studies, 1093 workers; SMD -0.23, 95% CI -0.42 to -0.03).Physical conditioning compared to exercise therapy showed conflicting results for workers with subacute and chronic back pain. Cognitive behavioural therapy was probably not superior to physical conditioning as an alternative or in addition to physical conditioning.
Authors' conclusions: The effectiveness of physical conditioning as part of a return to work strategy in reducing sick leave for workers with back pain, compared to usual care or exercise therapy, remains uncertain. For workers with acute back pain, physical conditioning may have no effect on sickness absence duration. There is conflicting evidence regarding the reduction of sickness absence duration with intense physical conditioning versus usual care for workers with subacute back pain. It may be that including workplace visits or execution of the intervention at the workplace is the component that renders a physical conditioning programme effective. For workers with chronic back pain physical conditioning has a small effect on reducing sick leave compared to care as usual after 12 months follow-up. To what extent physical conditioning as part of integrated care management may alter the effect on sick leave for workers with chronic back pain needs further research.