Back pain prevalent, but cause tricky to pinpoint

Besides the common cold, back pain is the most widespread health complaint experienced by Australian adults in an average 12 months, new findings from Roy Morgan Research reveal.

As of March 2016, just over 7.4 million Australians (more than a quarter) aged 18 or older reported having had back pain at least once in the previous year.

While there is a slight skew towards the 65-plus demographic, 43.2% of whom have had back pain, it appears that age is not as significant a factor as might be expected.

Recent health data from Roy Morgan Research shows that after turning 30, Australians are all similarly prone to back problems.

For example, in an average 12-month period, 40.7% of 30- to 34-year-olds experience back pain, compared with 42.6% of Australians aged over 80.

While there are slight variations in incidence between different occupations, these are not marked enough to indicate a cause-and-effect correlation.

For example, while 40.5% of people working as labourers (one of the more physically demanding jobs) experience back pain, so too does the exact same proportion of clerical/admin workers.

At 43.2% prevalence, technicians and trades workers are more likely to be affected with back pain, but not so much more than white collar workers (39.5%).

However, as for certain other health conditions (such as asthma and type 2 diabetes), Body Mass Index appears to impact a person’s susceptibility to back pain.

Our data shows that 46.9% of Australian adults whose BMI is categorised as obese have bad backs, putting them at a considerably higher risk than those whose BMI is overweight (39.8%), acceptable (35.9%) and underweight (35.3%).

“Back problems are a pain, literally and figuratively,” says Norman Morris, Industry Communications Director, Roy Morgan Research.

“Yet because this particular health complaint is so widespread, rather than limited to a smaller, more specific portion of the population, it is difficult to pin-point one major cause or risk factor.

“As we have seen, prevalence of back pain does vary to a slight degree between age and occupational groups, but not so much so as to suggest a strong correlation. 

“Nor does sporting participation result in an elevated prevalence of back pain: if anything, it has the opposite effect. Less than a third (33.1%) of Aussie adults who ‘love to do as many sports as possible’ experience back pain in an average 12 months – a considerably lower-than-average prevalence.

“The connection between back problems and obesity, however, does appear to be more persuasive – reminding us once more that obesity is one of this nation’s most serious health issues,” he says.

“Even when obesity is not to blame, however, back pain reduces a person’s quality of life, affects their workplace productivity and places more pressure on our already stretched healthcare system. Roy Morgan Research’s health data assists medical professionals and health bodies to understand the whole spectrum of factors – behavioural, demographic and attitudinal – that could be at play, allowing them to raise awareness among groups most at risk.”

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