More than 840 million people to suffer from back pain by 2050

Surge in back pain driven by poor health and ageing

The number of people suffering from back pain is likely to surge in the coming years, researchers have said. Photo: South Agency
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More than 840 million people will be affected by back pain by 2050, largely due to population increases and the ageing of populations, a study has shown.

Researchers have warned that the number of those suffering from the medical condition is set to sky rocket and could lead to a healthcare crisis, as low back pain is the leading cause of disability in the world.

Australia will see a nearly 50 per cent increase in cases by 2050, while the biggest increases in back pain cases will be in Asia and Africa, according to a study published in Lancet Rheumatology on Monday.

“Our analysis paints a picture of growing low back pain cases globally, putting enormous pressure on our healthcare system,” said lead author Manuela Ferreira of Sydney Musculoskeletal Health.

“We need to establish a national, consistent approach to managing low back pain that is informed by research.”

Dr Ferreira, who is based out of Sydney's Kolling Institute, added: “Currently, how we have been responding to back pain has been reactive.

“Australia is a global leader in back pain research. We can be proactive and lead by example on back pain prevention.”

The study reveals several milestones in back pain cases. Since 2017, the number of low back pain cases ticked over to more than half a billion people, rising to to 619 million by 2020.

The study analysed data from 1990 to 2020 from more than 204 countries and territories to map the landscape of back pain cases over time.

Low back pain is more common among older people and more frequently affects women, researchers say.

At least one third of the disability burden associated with back pain was attributable to occupational factors, smoking and being overweight.

Common treatments recommended for low back pain have been found to have unknown effectiveness or to be ineffective – this includes some surgeries and opioids.

Dr Ferreira said there is a lack of consistency in how health professionals manage back pain cases and added that the healthcare system needs to adapt.

“It may come as a surprise to some that current clinical guidelines for back pain treatment and management do not provide specific recommendations for older people,” she said.

“Older people have more complex medical histories and are more likely to be prescribed strong medication, including opioids for back pain management, compared to younger adults.

“But this is not ideal and can have a negative impact on their function and quality of life, especially as these analgesics may interfere with their other existing medications.

“This is just one example of why we need to update clinical guidelines to support our health professionals.”

Co-author Katie de Luca, of CQUniversity, said if the right action is not taken, low back pain can become a precursor to chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health conditions, can necessitate invasive medical procedures and cause significant disability.

“Low back pain continues to be the greatest cause of disability burden worldwide,” she said.

“There are substantial socio-economic consequences of this condition, and the physical and personal impact directly threatens healthy ageing.”

Updated: May 22, 2023, 10:30 PM