Preventing disability from work-related low-back pain: New evidence gives new hope - if we can just get all the players onside


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Abstract

Despite the publication in the mid-1990s of comprehensive practice guidelines for the management of acute low-back pain, both in the United States and elsewhere, this ubiquitous health problem continues to be the main cause of workers' compensation claims in much of the Western world. This paper represents a synthesis of the intervention studies published in the last 4 years and is based on a new approach to categorizing these studies that emphasizes the stage or phase of back pain at the time of intervention and the site or agent of the intervention. Current thinking suggests that medical management in the first 3-4 weeks after the onset of pain should be generally conservative. Several studies of rather heterogeneous interventions focusing on return to work and implemented in the subacute stage (3-4 to 12 weeks after the onset of pain) have shown important reductions in time lost from work (by 30% to 50%). There is substantial evidence indicating that employers who promptly offer appropriately modified duties can reduce time lost per episode of back pain by at least 30%, with frequent spin-off effects on the incidence of new back-pain claims as well. Finally, newer studies of guidelines-based approaches to back pain in the workplace suggest that a combination of all these approaches, in a coordinated workplace-linked care system, can achieve a reduction of 50% in time lost due to back pain, at no extra cost and, in some settings, with significant savings.

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