**Embargo: 17.00 [UK time] Wednesday 21st March 2018**


The Lancet: Low back pain affects 540 million people worldwide, but too many patients receive the wrong care

Worldwide, overuse of inappropriate tests and treatments such as imaging, opioids and surgery means patients are not receiving the right care, and resources are wasted

Newswise — Low back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting an estimated 540 million people at any one time. Yet, a new Series of papers in The Lancet highlights the extent to which the condition is mistreated, often against best practice treatment guidelines. 

Evidence suggests that low back pain should be managed in primary care, with the first line of treatment being education and advice to keep active and at work.

However, in reality, a high proportion of patients worldwide are treated in emergency departments, encouraged to rest and stop work, are commonly referred for scans or surgery or prescribed pain killers including opioids, which are discouraged for treating low back pain.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” explains Series author Professor Rachelle Buchbinder, Monash University, Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.” [1]

The Series reviews evidence from high- and low-income countries that suggests that many of the mistakes of high-income countries are already well established in low-income and middle-income countries. Rest is frequently recommended in low and middle income countries, and resources to modify workplaces are scarce. 

Low back pain results in 2.6 million emergency visits in the USA each year, with high rates of opioid prescription. A 2009 study found that opioids were prescribed to around 60% of emergency department visits for low back pain in the USA. Additionally, only about half of people with chronic back pain in the USA have been prescribed exercise. In India, studies suggest that bed rest is frequently recommended, and a study in South Africa found that 90% of patients received pain medicine as their only form of treatment (see panel 1, paper 2 for further examples).

“In many countries, painkillers that have limited positive effect are routinely prescribed for low back pain, with very little emphasis on interventions that are evidence based such as exercises. As lower-income countries respond to this rapidly rising cause of disability, it is critical that they avoid the waste that these misguided practices entail,” adds Series author Professor Nadine Foster, Keele University, UK. [1]

The Global Burden of Disease study (2017) found that low back pain is the leading cause of disability in almost all high-income countries as well as central Europe, eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and parts of Latin America. Every year, a total of 1 million years of productive life is lost in the UK because of disability from low back pain; 3 million in the USA; and 300,000 in Australia (see GBD for country specific estimates available [2]).

The global burden of disability due to low back pain has increased by more than 50% since 1990, and is due to increase even further in the coming decades as the population ages.

Low back pain mostly affects adults of working age. Rarely can a specific cause of low back pain be identified so most is termed non-specific and evidence suggests that psychological and economic factors are important in the persistence of low back pain. Most episodes of low back pain are short-lasting with little or no consequence, but recurrent episodes are common (about one in three people will have a recurrence within 1 year of recovering from a previous episode) and low back pain is increasingly understood as a long-lasting condition.

The authors say that health care systems should avoid harmful and useless treatments by only offering treatments in public reimbursement packages if evidence shows that they are safe, effective, and cost-effective. They also highlight the need to address widespread misconceptions in the population and among health professionals about the causes, prognosis and effectiveness of different treatments for low back pain. 

“Millions of people across the world are getting the wrong care for low back pain. Protection of the public from unproven or harmful approaches to managing low back pain requires that governments and health-care leaders tackle entrenched and counterproductive reimbursement strategies, vested interests, and financial and professional incentives that maintain the status quo,” says Series author Professor Jan Hartvigsen, University of Southern Denmark.  “Funders should pay only for high-value care, stop funding ineffective or harmful tests and treatments, and importantly intensify research into prevention, better tests and better treatments.” [1]

UK specific briefing notes

UK country specific lower back pain data

(taken from 2017 LBP Pathway documentation)

Low Back Pain (LBP) is extremely common, and is the largest single cause of years lived with disability in England (Global Burden of Disease 2013)

UK specific data shows that LBP was the top cause of years lived with disability in both 1990 and 2010, with a 12% increase over this time - so the problem is getting worse.

LBP accounts for 11% of the entire disability burden from all diseases in the UK.

The cost of LBP to the NHS was estimated in 2008 to be £2.1 billion (and costs overall to UK society when we factor in work loss and informal care in region of £10.7 billion). 

In the UK in 2006, one in seven of all recorded consultations with general practitioners were for musculoskeletal problems with complaints of back pain being the most common (417 consultations per year for low back pain per 10,000 registered persons)

Burden of back pain disability in UK has increased from 1510 disability adjusted life years /100,000 to 1634 DAlYs /100,000 – an 8% increase in spite of massive investments in back pain research and treatment. Source: https://vizhub.healthdata.org/gbd-compare

UK author additional quotes

Professor Nadine Foster, Keele University - lead author of one of the papers, comments:

“Funders should pay only for high-value care, stop funding ineffective or harmful tests and treatments, and importantly intensify research into prevention.” 

"The gap between best evidence and practice in low back pain must be reduced. We need to redirect funding away from ineffective or harmful tests and treatments and towards approaches that promote physical activity and function. We also need to intensify further research of promising new approaches such as redesigning patient pathways of care and interventions that support people to function and stay at work" 

“There are examples of promising new solutions around the world but they need to be more rigorously researched to work out if they should be implemented.”

Professor Martin Underwood, University of Warwick - co-author on the papers comments: 

“Our current treatment approaches are failing to reduce the burden of back pain disability; we need to change the way we approach back pain treatment in the UK and help low and middle income countries to avoid developing high cost services of limited effectiveness.”

For interview requests: 

Professor Nadine Foster, Keele University

Contact: Sam Lesniak, PR & Communications Manager: [email protected] 01782 733857


Professor Martin Underwood,  University of Warwick

Contact: Nicola Jones, Media Relations Manager: [email protected] 07920531221 OR Tom Frew [email protected] 07785433155




[1] Quotes direct from authors and cannot be found in the text of the articles

[2] http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)32154-2/fulltext



For embargoed access to the Article and Comment, please see: www.thelancet-press.com/embargo/backpainseries.pdf


For author interviews or more information, including country-specific data and case studies of patients willing to speak to the media, please contact the following communications teams. Contacts available in the following countries:

  • Europe: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, UK
  • North America: Canada, USA
  • Rest of World: Australia, Brazil, South Africa





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