Lower back pain responsible for a third of work-related disability

1 April 2014

Lower back pain linked to workplace factors accounts for a third of all work-related disability worldwide, according to research led by the University of Sydney and conducted by an international team of researchers.

The research, published recently in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, aimed to assess the burden arising from lower back pain due to occupational exposure to ergonomic risk factors.

Lead author Professor Tim Driscoll, Sydney School of Public Health, said that lower back pain arising from ergonomic exposures at work is a major cause of disability.

"The people most at risk were those who work in the agricultural sector, and those aged 35-65.However,low back pain is a problem for people in many occupations.

"Based on published research, agricultural sector workers were almost four times as likely to develop low back pain disability as any other group of workers," he said.

Ergonomic factors linked to low back pain occurrence are lifting, forceful movement, awkward positions and vibration.

"These factors are common in the agricultural sector," Professor Driscoll said.

Published data shows that in Australia, back pain is the leading cause of work loss days with 25 per cent of sufferers in the 18-44 age group taking 10 or more days off per year, and costing Australia around $4.8 billion each year for health care.

On any given day in Australia, one quarter of the population is suffering back pain, and nearly 80 per cent of adult Australians will experience back pain some time during their lives.

In the study, disability arising from work was measured as disability adjusted life years (DALYs), calculated from a combination of years of life lost due to premature death and years of life lived with disability.

"The calculations showed that in 2010 there were nearly 22 million DALYs worldwide caused by workplace related low back pain," Professor Driscoll said.

"The burden was considerable in all regions, all age groups, and both genders with 13.5 million DALYs in men and 8.3 million in women.

"The highest rate of DALYs occurred in Asia, Oceania and parts of Africa - places where employment in agriculture is more common, but rates were considerable in all regions.

"Lower back pain arising from ergonomic exposures at work is a major cause of disability worldwide. There is a need for improved information on exposure risks, particularly in developing countries, to help better understand the burden. This should lead to better prevention of back pain and injury, as well as decreased lost work time due to back pain," Professor Driscoll said.

The work was undertaken as part of the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study (GBD 2010), which assesses ill health and disability arising from all conditions in 187 countries for 1990, 2005, and 2010. The GBD 2010 study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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