Markus Melloh, research associate professor in orthopaedics with the University of Western Australia, found that a third of people studied with niggling non-specific back pain went on to develop daily back pain that severely affected their career and social lives.
Although the workers required extended sick leave and went to their doctors complaining of pain, only a few had suffered a physical change such as a slipped disc. Anatomical tests showed no reasons for their ongoing daily problems with pain.
"Everybody has occasional lower back or neck pain but we are concerned about people with continuous non-specific pain for weeks at a time, which has significant socio-economic and personal costs," said Melloh, according to a Western Australia statement.
A total of 315 patients who went to their doctors with their first episode of non-specific back pain were interviewed at that time and followed up at three, six and 12 weeks, and six months.
The assessment included questions about their attitude. By the end of the study, 169 people were still participating in the research and about a third of them, 64 patients, were classed as having a persistent condition. Some reported worse pain after six months, which was not what doctors would usually expect.
"Once people stay at home on sick leave, it gets harder to go back to work and the pain gets worse," added Melloh. "It's a vicious circle that needs to be broken."
These findings will be presented at the Spine Society of Australia meeting in Sydney on Friday.