Low back pain prevalent among U.S. workers, may be underreported, survey finds

More than 10% of workers with frequent and severe low back pain had stopped working, changed jobs, or made a major change in work activities in the past three months because of low back pain.


More than one in four U.S. workers reported low back pain in a survey, and almost a quarter of that group had been told by a clinician that the pain was work-related, a study found.

Researchers used 2015 data from the National Health Interview Survey on 19,000 adults to estimate the burden of low back pain among U.S. workers, as well as whether the pain was related to work or had an effect on workers' abilities to perform. Results were published May 14 by Annals of Internal Medicine.

The three-month prevalence of any low back pain among U.S. workers was approximately 26.4%, which the researchers calculated to be almost 40 million workers. Overall prevalence was 8.1% for frequent and severe low back pain and 5.6% for work-related low back pain.

The prevalence of any low back pain was lowest among workers employed in computer and mathematical occupations, while the prevalence of overall and work-related low back pain was highest in construction and extraction occupations. Low back pain was most frequent and severe in building jobs, as well as grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations. Workers who reported frequent exertion or standing were more likely than those who did not to report any kind of back pain.

Among all patients with any low back pain, 21.4% reported being told by a health professional that their pain was probably work-related. Among patients with frequent and severe low back pain, that percentage was 23.7%. However, most workers with low back pain did not recall ever discussing whether their pain was work-related with a health professional.

Low back pain had affected many current workers' ability to work, the researchers reported. Overall, 6.0% of current workers with any low back pain, 10.2% of those with frequent and severe low back pain, and 18.4% of those with work-related low back pain had ever filed a workers' compensation claim. Regardless of cause, 16.9% of workers with any low back pain and 19.0% of those with frequent and severe low back pain missed at least one full day of work in the past three months because of low back pain. Furthermore, 6.1% of workers with any low back pain and 10.7% of those with frequent and severe low back pain had stopped working, changed jobs, or made a major change in work activities in the past three months because of low back pain.

According to the researchers, the total occupational effect of low back pain in the population may be underestimated because of the short recall period in the survey and the exclusion of former workers, some of whom may have left the workforce because of work-related low back pain.

They wrote, “Low-back pain has been linked to both physical and psychosocial occupational factors in many studies. Diagnosing an occupational cause may improve the chances of a patient's recovery if an occupational exposure precipitating the pain can be reduced or eliminated and may allow the patient to apply for workers' compensation to cover medical costs and lost wages.”