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Chronic Low Back Pain Is on the Rise
Date:2/10/2009

is the increase in obesity. Another is an increase in the prevalence of depression, which has been linked to back pain. Carey said that it's unclear whether back pain causes depression or whether people with pre-existing depression are more likely to develop depression.

What is clear is that chronic lower back problems remain a major public health problem.

"While no one dies from mechanical back pain, it is one of the most common reasons for work disability," Carey noted. The bill for lost productivity and back-related health care totals about $100 billion a year, he added. "In one sense, we're all paying for back pain. It ends up being reflected in our health insurance premiums and our Social Security disability costs," he said.

Carey said there appears to be a national trend toward increasing numbers of people with chronic lower back pain that causes impairment. The National Health Interview Survey showed that lower back pain and neck pain increased from 3.2 percent of the population in 1997 to 8.3 percent in 2006.

"There's not reason to believe that the population of North Carolina is that different from the rest of the U.S.," Carey said. "We have an ethnically diverse population and an age spectrum similar to the rest of the country." Because most chronic diseases tend to occur at a slightly higher rate in the southeastern U.S., he said, "it is slightly possible that the percentage [of chronic lower back pain] might be somewhat higher in the southeast, but I think the most important issue is this increase over time."

The findings also raise questions as to the effectiveness of current back pain treatments, Carey said. For example, another recent study he participated in showed that exercise remains underutilized as a means of treating chronic back and neck pain, though numerous studies show it can be effective.

Brook Martin, a University of Washington health services researcher who specializes in study
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