Survey highlights need for more help with back pain

The care that occupational health professionals offer to NHS staff suffering from back problems has improved since 2008, but gaps still remain around the advice and information that staff are able to access, the latest national clinical audit of back pain has revealed.

The triennial audit by the Royal College of Physicians has highlighted that it is essential for all NHS staff to be given good advice about back pain by their OH department.

Musculoskeletal (MSD) problems such as back pain account for 40% of sickness absences among NHS staff and cost approximately £400 million per year, it added.

Compared with the last audit in 2008, the care and management of staff suffering from back problems had improved. However, in half of the 5,524 cases – 53% of whom were nurses – included in the audit, sufferers required clearer information about back pain.

For example, this included that, in most cases, back pain was likely to get better spontaneously and it was important to return to work as soon as possible. This advice should apply, the audit stressed, even if a patient was experiencing some pain.

“There has been a revolution in the way we manage back pain and there is now good evidence to show that what you do in the early stages is very important – in most cases, the sooner you get moving and doing your ordinary activities, the sooner you will get back to normal,” said Dr Julia Smedley, lead consultant on the audit.

The audit also revealed that:

  • 59% had taken time off sick because of their back pain;
  • 87% of consultations encouraged patients, where appropriate, to stay at work despite residual pain; and
  • 95% of the consultations resulted, where appropriate, in practical advice to managers about the adjustments they could make so that their staff could remain in, or return to, work.

In a separate study, health service provider Nuffield Health has argued that half of UK workers have suffered from back pain in the past year, with one in five taking time off work as a result.

A study of 1,600 16- to 65-year-olds found that the majority of sufferers had a long-term condition. Of those who had experienced back pain in the past 12 months, one-third had lived with the condition for more than a year, a quarter for more than two years, and 15% for more than five years.

One in five said that back pain interfered with their work and home life “most days”, with one in 20 saying they lived in constant pain. For those aged over 55, that figure doubled to one in 10.

Almost half of those surveyed said that they had sought treatment via their GP, but one-third said they had failed to find a successful solution.

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