Staying active helps back-pain patients return to work sooner

Back pain is of the most common reasons for missed work, causing an estimated 101.8 million lost workdays annually.1 Learning how to expedite recovery is tantamount to reducing work absence in patients with back pain. A new study found that combining counseling with advice to stay active enabled employees to return to work sooner following a back-pain injury.2

The research involved 506 workers who were on medical leave because of their lower back pain. The participants, mostly blue-collar workers, underwent routine evaluations by a medical adviser as part of Belgium's national health and disability insurance program. Half received only the standard disability counseling, while the other half also received information and counseling for low-back pain. The advice given included avoiding bed rest and remaining active, proceeding with normal daily routines as much as possible.

The researchers found that patients who received counseling had a higher likelihood of returning to work. They concluded that patient counseling can decrease the number of people claiming disability and the number of sick days taken. This "rehabilitation-oriented approach" appears to double the chance of a patient returning to work within a year.

The importance of exercise to back pain recovery has also been explored by other researchers. A previous study found that patients with low back pain who remain active fared better than those who were less active.3 Patients who remained active recovered faster and felt less depressed than patients who were advised to adjust their activity level based on their pain. Researchers suggest that patients with low-back pain remain active when possible, and consult with a doctor to discuss ways to stay active even with back pain.

Another team of researchers analyzed more than 20 studies testing various methods of back pain prevention such as ergonomic education, stress management, exercise, and shoe inserts, and found that exercise appears to be the best way to prevent back pain. Of the methods tested, only exercise was found to consistently produce substantial back pain relief.4


  1. Guo HR, et al. Back pain pravalence in the US industry and estimates of lost workdays. American Journal of Public Health 1999; 89(7): 1029-1035.
  2. Du Bois, M and Donceel P. Guiding low back claimants to work: a randomized controlled trial. Spine 2012; 37(17): 1425-1431.
  3. Olaya-Contreras, Patricia. " Biopsychosocial analyses of acute and chronic pain, especially in the spine: The effect of distress on pain intensity and disability." Institute of Clinical Sciences at the Sahlgrenska Academy University of Gothenburg. 2011.
  4. Bigos S, Holland J, Holland C, Webster J, Battie, Malmgren J. High-quality controlled trials on preventing episodes of back problems: systematic literature review in working-age adults. The Spine Journal 2009; 9: 147-168.