Lancet. 2018 (Jun 9); 391 (10137): 23562367 ~ FULL TEXT
Prof Jan Hartvigsen, PhD, Mark J Hancock, PhD, Alice Kongsted, PhD, Prof Quinette Louw, PhD, Manuela L Ferreira, PhD, Stιphane Genevay, MD, Damian Hoy, PhD, Prof Jaro Karppinen, PhD, Glenn Pransky, MD, Prof Joachim Sieper, MD, Prof Rob J Smeets, PhD, Prof Martin Underwood, MD
Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics,
University of Southern Denmark,
Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics,
Low back pain is a very common symptom. It occurs in high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries and all age groups from children to the elderly population. Globally, years lived with disability caused by low back pain increased by 54% between 1990 and 2015, mainly because of population increase and ageing, with the biggest increase seen in low-income and middle-income countries. Low back pain is now the leading cause of disability worldwide.
For nearly all people with low back pain, it is not possible to identify a specific nociceptive cause. Only a small proportion of people have a well understood pathological cause - eg, a vertebral fracture, malignancy, or infection. People with physically demanding jobs, physical and mental comorbidities, smokers, and obese individuals are at greatest risk of reporting low back pain. Disabling low back pain is over-represented among people with low socioeconomic status. Most people with new episodes of low back pain recover quickly; however, recurrence is common and in a small proportion of people, low back pain becomes persistent and disabling.
Initial high pain intensity, psychological distress, and accompanying pain at multiple body sites increases the risk of persistent disabling low back pain. Increasing evidence shows that central pain-modulating mechanisms and pain cognitions have important roles in the development of persistent disabling low back pain. Cost, health-care use, and disability from low back pain vary substantially between countries and are influenced by local culture and social systems, as well as by beliefs about cause and effect.
Disability and costs attributed to low back pain are projected to increase in coming decades, in particular in low-income and middle-income countries, where health and other systems are often fragile and not equipped to cope with this growing burden. Intensified research efforts and global initiatives are clearly needed to address the burden of low back pain as a public health problem.
From the FULL TEXT Article:
Low back pain is an extremely common symptom
experienced by people of all ages. [1-3] In 2015, the global
point prevalence of activity-limiting low back pain was
7.3%, implying that 540 million people were affected at
any one time. Low back pain is now the number one
cause of disability globally.  The largest increases in
disability caused by low back pain in the past few decades
have occurred in low-income and middle-income
countries, including in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, 
where health and social systems are poorly equipped to
deal with this growing burden in addition to other
priorities such as infectious diseases.
Rarely can a specific cause of low back pain be identified;
thus, most low back pain is termed non-specific. Low back
pain is characterised by a range of biophysical,
psychological, and social dimensions that impair function,
societal participation, and personal financial prosperity.
The financial impact of low back pain is cross-sectoral
because it increases costs in both health-care and social
supports systems.  Disability attributed to low back pain
varies substantially among countries, and is influenced by
social norms, local health-care approaches, and
legislation.  In low-income and middle-income countries,
formal and informal social-support systems are negatively
affected. While in high-income countries, the concern is
that the prevalent health-care approaches for low back
pain contribute to the overall burden and cost rather than
reducing it.  Spreading high-cost health-care models to
low-income and middle-income countries will compound
rather than alleviate the burden. Low back pain is therefore
an urgent global public health concern.
Low back pain is an extremely common symptom in populations worldwide and
occurs in all age groups, from children to the elderly population
Low back pain was responsible for 60.1 million disability-adjusted life-years in 2015,
an increase of 54% since 1990, with the biggest increase seen in low-income and
Disability from low back pain is highest in working age groups worldwide, which is
especially concerning in low-income and middle-income countries where informal
employment is common and possibilities for job modification are limited
Most episodes of low back pain are short-lasting with little or no consequence, but
recurrent episodes are common and low back pain is increasingly understood as a
long-lasting condition with a variable course rather than episodes of unrelated
Low back pain is a complex condition with multiple contributors to both the pain and
associated disability, including psychological factors, social factors, biophysical factors,
comorbidities, and pain-processing mechanisms
For the vast majority of people with low back pain, it is currently not possible to
accurately identify the specific nociceptive source
Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, obesity, and low levels of physical activity, that
relate to poorer general health, are also associated with occurrence of low back pain
Costs associated with health care and work disability attributed to low back pain vary
considerably between countries, and are influenced by social norms, health-care
approaches, and legislation
The global burden of low back pain is projected to increase even further in coming
decades, particularly in low-income and middle-income countries
Against this backdrop, we present a series of two papers
and a Viewpoint. The aim of this paper is to present a
current understanding of what low back pain is, its burden
and global impact, as well as an overview of causes and the
course of low back pain. The evidence for the effectiveness
of current treatments and promising new directions for
managing low back pain is presented in paper two,  and
the Viewpoint is a worldwide call to action. 
The approach for this Series involved the constitution
of a team of leading international experts on back pain
from different professional backgrounds and from
countries around the globe who convened for a workshop
in Buxton, UK, in June, 2016, to outline the structure of
each paper. For this paper, we identified scientific studies
using broad search terms in MEDLINE (PubMed) and
Scopus. To identify potentially relevant papers from low-income
and middle-income countries, we also searched
Google Scholar and the African Index Medicus Database.
To minimise selection bias and to ensure high-quality
evidence was selected, systematic reviews were preferred
and sought when possible. However, we also used
information from large population-based cohorts,
international clinical guidelines, and the Global Burden
of Disease (GBD) 2015 study. Primary research from
low-income and middle-income regions excluded
from systematic reviews was also referenced where
What is low back pain?
Low back pain is a symptom not a disease, and can result
from several different known or unknown abnormalities
It is defined by the location of pain, typically between
the lower rib margins and the buttock creases.  It is
commonly accompanied by pain in one or both legs and
some people with low back pain have associated
neurological symptoms in the lower limbs.
For nearly all people presenting with low back pain,
the specific nociceptive source cannot be identified and
those affected are then classified as having so-called
non-specific low back pain.  There are some serious
causes of persistent low back pain (malignancy, vertebral
fracture, infection, or inflammatory disorders such as
axial spondyloarthritis) that require identification and
specific management targeting the cause, but these
account for a very small proportion of cases. People with
low back pain often have concurrent pain in other body
sites, and more general physical and mental health
problems, when compared with people not reporting
low back pain.  The combined effect on individuals of
low back pain and comorbidity is often more than the
effect of the low back pain or the comorbidity alone
and results in more care, yet typically a poorer response
to a range of treatments.  Thus, many people living
with low back pain have diverse problems in which
psychological, social, and biophysical factors as well as
comorbidities and pain-processing mechanisms impact
on both the pain experience and the associated disability
Causes of low back pain
Although clinical tests are unable to accurately identify the
tissue source of most low back pain, several structures are
innervated and have been shown to produce pain when
stimulated. In some cases local anaesthetic relieves the
pain (Panel 1). [14, 15] Many imaging (radiography, CT scan,
and MRI) findings identified in people with low back pain
are also common in people without such pain, and their
importance in diagnosis is a source of much debate. 
Nevertheless, at least in people younger than 50 years,
some MRI abnormalities are more common in those with
low back pain than in those without. A systematic review
(14 case-control studies; 3,097 participants) found several
MRI findings had a reasonably strong association with low
back pain, including Modic type 1 change (odds ratio
[OR] 4.0, 95% CI 1.114.6), disc bulge (7.5, 1.344.6), disc
extrusion (4.4, 2.09.7), and spondylolysis (5.1, 1.715.5; Table 1).  However, evidence is insufficient to know
whether MRI findings can be of use to predict the future
onset, or the course, of low back pain.  Importantly, no
evidence exists that imaging improves patient outcomes 
and guidelines consistently recommend against the
routine use of imaging for people with low back pain. [25-28]
Potential nociceptive contributors to low back pain |
that have undergone investigation
Although some imaging and clinical findings increase the likelihood that pain is arising from the intervertebral disc (with the reference standard of discography), no investigation has accurately identified a disc problem as contributing to an individual's pain;  there is no widely accepted reference standard for discogenic pain
Injecting facet joints with local anaesthetic can cause temporary relief of pain;  however, the Framingham Heart Study (3,529 participants) did not find an association between radiological osteoarthritis of facet joints and presence of low back pain;  clinical identification of individuals whose facet joints are contributing to their pain is not possible. 
Vertebral endplates (Modic changes)
Modic changes are vertebral endplate abnormalities seen on MRI with specific subchondral and vertebral bone marrow features that can be classified according to different signal intensities into type 1, type 2, and type 3; endplate defects and disc herniation might predispose to the development of Modic changes; one theory is that the pro-inflammatory response, caused by structural damage to the disc or endplate, could allow microbial infiltration, autoimmune reactions, or both, that intensify and extend nociceptor stimulation by chemical or mechanical stimuli;  a low-grade infection by Propionibacterium acnes might promote the development of Modic changes;  the relevance of these findings to clinical practice is, however, unclear; a systematic review concluded that Modic type 1 changes are associated with low back pain;  a subsequent study, including 1,142 people, found that Modic type 2 changes were associated with disability (odds ratio 1.56, 95% CI 1.062.31), but not pain (1.36, 0.882.09);  identification of individuals in whom Modic changes are contributing to their pain is not possible.
Neurological symptoms associated with low back pain
Radicular pain and radiculopathy
Radicular pain occurs when there is nerve-root involvement;
commonly termed sciatica. The term sciatica is
used inconsistently by clinicians and patients for different
types of leg or back pain and should be avoided.  The
diagnosis of radicular pain relies on clinical findings,
including a history of dermatomal leg pain, leg pain
worse than back pain, worsening of leg pain during
coughing, sneezing or straining,  and straight leg raise
test. Radiculopathy is characterised by the presence of
weakness, loss of sensation, or loss of reflexes associated
with a particular nerve root, or a combination of these,
and can coexist with radicular pain. People with low back
pain and radicular pain or radiculopathy are reported to
be more severely affected and have poorer outcomes
compared with those with low back pain only.  Disc
herniation in conjunction with local inflammation is the
most common cause of radicular pain and radiculopathy.
Disc herniations are, however, a frequent finding on
imaging in the asymptomatic population,  and they often
resolve or disappear over time independent of resolution
of pain. 
Lumbar spinal stenosis
Lumbar spinal stenosis is clinically characterised by
pain or other discomfort with walking or extended
standing that radiates into one or both lower limbs and is
typically relieved by rest or lumbar flexion (neurogenic
claudication).  It is usually caused by narrowing of the
spinal canal or foramina due to a combination of
degenerative changes such as facet osteoarthritis,
ligamentum flavum hypertrophy, and bulging discs.
Expert consensus is that the diagnosis of the clinical
syndrome of lumbar spinal stenosis requires both the
presence of characteristic symptoms and signs as well as
imaging confirmation of narrowing of the lumbar
spinal canal or foramina.  Symptoms of lumbar spinal
stenosis are thought to result from venous congestion or
ischaemia of the nerve roots in the cauda equina due to
Specific pathological causes of low back pain
Potential causes of low back pain that might require
specific treatment include vertebral fractures, inflammatory
disorders (eg, axial spondyloarthritis), malignancy,
infections, and intra-abdominal causes (Panel 2). A study
of 1,172 new presentations of acute (<2 weeks) episodes of
low back pain in primary care in Australia found specific
causes of back pain in 0.9% of participants, with fracture
being by far the most common (eight of 11 cases), followed
by inflammatory disorders (two of 11 cases).  A review
from Uganda of 204 patients referred to a hospital
orthopaedic clinic with a primary complaint of low back
pain, showed that 4% of patients had serious spinal
abnormalities due to tuberculosis, 3.5% had vertebral
compression fractures, 1% brucellosis, and 1% had
malignancy.  These differences in the patterns of specific
pathological causes could reflect the ongoing burden of
infectious diseases and their manifestations as low back
pain in low-income countries. So-called red flags are case
history or clinical findings believed to increase the risk of
a serious disease; however, 80% of people with acute low
back pain have at least one red flag despite less than 1%
having a serious disorder.  Nearly all recommended
individual red flags are uninformative and do not
substantially change post-test probabilities of a serious
abnormality.  The very low specificity of most red flags
contributes to unnecessary specialist referrals and
imaging.  Clinicians do, however, need to consider if the
overall clinical picture might indicate a serious cause for
the pain, remembering that the picture can develop over
time.  The US guideline for imaging advises deferral of
imaging pending a trial of therapy when there are weak
risk factors for cancer or axial spondyloarthritis. 
Specific pathological causes of low back pain
Symptomatic minimal trauma vertebral fractures due to osteoporosis are rare under the age of 50 years but the incidence increases rapidly with age.  Although age-specific incidence is not changing, with an ageing population, the population burden is increasing. A systematic review (14 studies) found post-test probability for having a symptomatic vertebral fracture was 9% (95% CI 325) for those who were older (men aged >65 years, women aged >75 years), 33% (1067) for those with a history of long-term corticosteroid use, and 62% (4974) when a contusion or abrasion was present. The probability of a minimal trauma vertebral fracture being present when multiple risk factors (at least three of female, age >70, severe trauma, and long-term use of glucocorticoids) were present was 90% (3499).  The predictive value of such a decision rule is, however, not greatly different from clinical assessment.  Symptomatic minimal trauma vertebral fractures have been shown in some studies to have a major health impact with a mean of 158 days of restricted activity and a third of those affected still have significant back pain after 2 years.  In some studies, minimal trauma vertebral fractures are also associated with a two-to-eight times increased risk of mortality. 
Axial spondyloarthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that mainly affects the axial skeleton in young people (peak of onset 2040 years). Although traditionally thought to be a disease of young men, there is only a slight male predominance in population studies.  The term axial spondyloarthritis covers both people who have already developed structural damage in the sacroiliac joints or spine visible, or both, on radiographs (radiographic axial spondyloarthritis; also termed ankylosing spondylitis) and those who have not yet developed such structural damage (non-radiographic spondyloarthritis).  Non-radiographic spondyloarthritis is a prodrome of axial spondyloarthritis that might subsequently produce structural bony damage in the axial skeleton.  The prevalence of radiological disease is between 0.3 and 0.8% in western countries and is dependent on the HLA-B27 prevalence in a given population. 
The typical presentation of axial spondyloarthritis includes morning stiffness, mostly in the lower back, with improvement seen with exercise but not with rest. In a Danish cohort of 759 people aged 1840 years with chronic low back pain, the discriminative value of inflammatory back pain symptoms for axial spondyloarthritis was low with sensitivity and specificity ranging between 50% and 80% depending on the criteria being used.  However, around 30% of those referred to secondary care with symptoms of inflammatory back pain receive a final diagnosis of axial spondyloarthritis.  Around 5% of European people presenting with chronic low back pain in primary care could have axial spondyloarthritis.  There is often a delay between the onset of (back pain) symptoms and making a diagnosis of axial spondyloarthritis of 5 years or longer. People with axial spondyloarthritis are commonly mis-diagnosed with non-specific low back pain. Since effective treatments are now available for axial spondyloarthritis, a specialist rheumatology referral is advised for people who are suspected of having an axial spondyloarthritis.
Back pain is a common symptom in people with metastatic cancer; vertebral metastases occur in 35% of people with cancer, and 97% of spinal tumours are metastatic disease.  Nevertheless, malignancy is an uncommon cause of low back pain. Past history of malignancy is the most useful indicator for identifying such disease in people presenting with low back pain; however, it only increases the post-test probability to 7% (95% CI 316) in primary care, and to 33% (2246) in the emergency setting.  The common solid tumours metastasising to the spine are adenocarcinomasie, breast, lung, prostate, thyroid, and gastrointestinal. A past history of other tumours is less important. Myeloma typically presents as persistent bone pain in people aged 60 years and older.
Spinal infections include spondylodiscitis, vertebral osteomyelitis, epidural abscess, and rarely facet joint infection. Bacterial infections are divided into pyogenic (eg, Staphylococcus aureus and S epidermidis) and granulomatous diseases (eg, tuberculosis, brucellosis). Although rare, these disorders are associated with a substantial mortality; up to 3% for epidural abscesses, 6% for spinal osteomyelitis, and possibly as high as 11% for pyogenic spondylodiscitis. [45-47] In high-income countries, granulomatous diseases are mainly encountered in immigrant populations; pyogenic infections are seen largely in older patients (mean age 5969 years).  In low-income countries, tuberculosis affects a broader span of ages (mean age 2776 years), and could represent up to a third of spinal infections.  People with chronic comorbidities, particularly immunosuppressive disorders, and intravenous drug users, are at higher risk of spinal infections. Recent increases in the incidence of spinal infection are attributed to an ageing population with inherent comorbidities plus improved case ascertainment related to the availability of modern imaging techniques. [47, 49]
Cauda equina syndrome
Although not strictly a cause of low back pain, cauda equina compression, which mainly arises from disc herniation, can have catastrophic consequences. It is rare and most primary care clinicians will not see a true case in a working lifetime.  Early diagnosis and surgical treatment are probably helpful; therefore, there needs to be a low threshold for further assessment when there has been a new onset of perianal sensory change or bladder symptoms, or bilateral severe radicular pain with low back pain of any duration.  The cardinal clinical features are urinary retention and overflow incontinence (sensitivity 90%, specificity 95%). 
How common is low back pain?
Median prevalence of low back pain
Low back pain is uncommon in the first decade of life,
but prevalence increases steeply during the teenage
years; around 40% of 918-year olds in high-income,
medium-income, and low-income countries report
having had low back pain. [55, 56] Most adults will have low
back pain at some point.  The median 1-year period
prevalence globally in the adult population is around
37%, it peaks in mid-life, and is more common in
women than in men (Figure 2).  Low back pain that is
accompanied by activity limitation increases with age. 
The mean prevalence in high-income countries is
higher than in middle-income and low-income countries
(32.9% [SD 19.0] vs 25.4% [25.4] vs 16.7% [16.7]), but
globally there is no difference between rural and urban
areas.  Jackson pooled results from 40 publications
dealing with prevalence of persistent low back pain in
28 countries from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and
South America (n = 80,076) and found that chronic low
back pain was 2.5 (95% CI 1.214.10) times more
prevalent in working population than in non-working
populations for reasons that are not clear.  The gender
pattern in low-income and middle-income regions
might also differ from that of high-income countries
and even differ between low-income regions. For
example, men seem to report low back pain more often
than women in Africa.  This was not the case in Latin
America,  which might reflect African culture, in which
men often do hard physical labour, as well as gender
inequalities, which might result in women underreporting
their low back pain.
Burden and impact of low back pain
The GBD 2015 study calculated disease burden for
315 causes in 195 countries and territories from 1990 to
2015 and provides a comprehensive assessment of the
patterns and levels of acute and chronic diseases and
burden and disability of those worldwide.  Low back
pain was responsible for around 60.1 million years
lived with disability (YLD) in 2015, an increase of 54%
since 1990.  It is the number one cause of disability
globally, as well as in 14 of the 21 GBD world regions. 
Less than 28% of prevalent cases (n = 151 million) fell
in the severe and most severe categories; however,
these cases accounted for 77% of all disability caused
by low back pain (46.5 million YLDs).  Thus, most
people with low back pain have low levels of disability,
but the additive effect of those, combined with
high disability in a substantial minority, result in the
very high societal burden. In high-income countries,
disabling back pain is linked to socioeconomic status,
job satisfaction, and the potential for monetary compensation
(Table 2). The overall increase in the global
burden of low back pain is almost entirely due to
population increase and ageing in both high-income,
low-income and middle-income countries, as opposed
to increased prevalence. [1, 68]
Global burden of low back pain
Disability from low back pain is highest in working
age groups worldwide (Figure 3), [4, 61] which is especially
concerning in low-income and middle-income countries
where informal employment is common and possibilities
for job modification are almost completely absent.
Furthermore, occupational musculoskeletal health policies,
such as regulations for heavy physical work and
lifting, are often absent or poorly monitored.  A survey
of 10,839 residents of an urban black community in
Zimbabwe found that low back pain was among the top
five reported primary health complaints, and reasons for
activity limitation.  A survey among 500 farmers in rural
Nigeria showed that more than half reduced their
farming workload because of low back pain.  Thus,
disability associated with low back pain might contribute
to the cycle of poverty in poorer regions of the world.
In high-income countries, differences in social
compensation systems, not differences in occupational
exposure or individual factors, are largely responsible for
national differences in the rates and extent of work
disability attributed to low back pain.  In Europe, low back
pain is the most common cause of medically certified sick
leave and early retirement.  However, work disability due
to low back pain varies substantially among European
countries. For example, in Norway and Sweden in 2000,
short-term sickness absence rates in people with back
pain were similar (5.1% and 6.4%, respectively), but the
rate of longer-term medically certified sickness absence
was very different (22% and 15%, respectively).  In the
USA, low back pain accounts for more lost workdays than
any other occupational musculoskeletal condition,  but
although 58 of 10,000 US workers filed a back-related
claim in 1999, the comparable figure from Japan during
the same year was only one of 10,000. 
Social identity and inequality
The effect of low back pain on social identity and inequality
is substantial worldwide. Ethnographic interviews of
villagers in Botswana found that low back pain and other
musculoskeletal symptoms resulted in both economic
and subsistence consequences as well as loss of independence
and social identity because of inability to fulfil
traditional and expected social roles in a society with harsh
living conditions. 
Froud and colleagues  reviewed 42 qualitative studies
all from high-income countries, and found that many
people living with low back pain struggled to meet their
social expectations and obligations and that achieving
them might then threaten the credibility of their
suffering, with disability claims being endangered.
Although those with back pain seek to achieve premorbid
levels of health, many find with time that this
aim is unrealistic and live with reduced expectations. 
Likewise, MacNeela and colleagues  reviewed 38 separate
qualitative studies, also from high-income countries, and
found some common themes, including: worry and fear
about the social consequences of chronic low back pain,
hopelessness, family strain, social withdrawal, loss of
job and lack of money, disappointment with healthcare
encounters (in particular with general practitioners),
coming to terms with the pain, and learning self-management
Globally, low back pain contributes to inequality. In
low-income and middle-income countries, poverty and
inequality might increase as participation in work is
affected. Furthermore, formal return-to-work systems
are often not in place, and workers might be retrenched,
placing more strain on family and community
livelihoods.  In Australia, Schofield and colleagues 
found that individuals who exit the workforce early as a
result of their low back pain have substantially less
wealth by age 65 years, even after adjustment for
education. The median value of accumulated wealth for
those who retire early because of low back pain is only
AUS $5,038 by the time they reach 65 years of age,
compared with $339,121 for those who remain in the
Cost of low back pain
No relevant studies on costs associated with low back pain
from low-income and middle-income countries were
identified. Costs associated with low back pain are
generally reported as direct medical (health-care) costs,
and indirect (work absenteeism or productivity loss)
costs. Only a few studies have reported other direct nonmedical
costs, such as costs from transportation to
appointments, visits to complementary and alternative
practitioners, and informal help not captured by the
health-care system, which means that most studies
underestimate the total costs of low back pain (Appendix).
The economic impact related to low back pain is
comparable to other prevalent, high-cost conditions, such
as cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental health, and
autoimmune diseases.  Replacement wages account for
8090% of total costs, and consistently a small percentage
of cases account for these.  Some of the observed
variation in costs for low back pain over time might be
explained by changes in disability legislation and healthcare
practices. For example, in the Netherlands, costs
associated with low back pain were substantially reduced
between 1991 and 2007 after a change in legislation that
reduced disability pensions and applied evidence-based
criteria for medical practices. [7, 81]
Estimates of direct medical costs associated with low
back pain are also all from high-income countries, with the
USA having the highest costs, attributable to a more
medically intensive approach and higher rates of surgery
compared with other high-income countries (Appendix). [8, 82]
In the UK in 2006, one in seven of all recorded consultations
with general practitioners were for musculoskeletal
problems with complaints of back pain being the most
common (417 consultations per year for low back pain per
10,000 registered persons),  and in South Africa, low back
pain is the sixth most common complaint seen in primary
health care.  In addition to conventional medicine,
complementary and alternative medical approaches are
popular with people who have low back pain. For example,
in the USA 44% of the population used at least one
complementary or alternative health-care therapy in 1997; 
and the most common reason was low back pain. 
Low back pain is increasingly understood as a long-lasting
condition with a variable course rather than
episodes of unrelated occurrences.  Around half the
people seen with low back pain in primary care have a
trajectory of continuing or fluctuating pain of low-to-moderate
intensity, some recover, and some have
persistent severe low back pain.  A systematic review 
(33 cohorts; 11,166 participants) provides strong evidence
that most episodes of low back pain improve substantially
within 6 weeks, and by 12 months average pain levels are
low (6 points on a 100-point scale; 95% CI 310). However,
two-thirds of patients still report some pain at 3 months;
67% (95% CI 5083) and 12 months; 65% (5475). [89, 90]
Recurrences of low back pain are common but a 2017
systematic review (seven studies; 1,780 participants)
found that research does not provide robust estimates of
the risk of low back pain recurrence. The best evidence
suggests around 33% of people will have a recurrence
within 1 year of recovering from a previous episode. 
Risk factors and triggers for episodes of low back pain
Although the impact of low back pain in low-income
and middle-income countries on systems and people
differs from high-income countries, there seem to be
fewer fundamental differences in the risk factors
between regions. A systematic review  (eight cohorts;
5,165 participants) found consistent evidence that people
who have had previous episodes of low back pain are at
increased risk of a new episode. Likewise, people with
other chronic conditions, including asthma, headache,
and diabetes, are more likely to report low back pain
than people in good health (pooled ORs 1.64.2). 
People with poor mental health are also at increased
risk. For example, a UK cohort study  (5,781 participants)
found psychological distress at age 23 years predicted
incident low back pain 10 years later (OR 2.52, 95% CI
1.653.86]. The Canadian National Population Health
Survey  with 9,909 participants found that pain-free
individuals with depression were more likely to develop
low back pain within 2 years than were people without
depression (OR 2.9, 95% CI 1.27.0). Mechanisms
behind the coexistence of low back pain and other
chronic diseases are not known, but systematic reviews
of cohort studies indicate that lifestyle factors such as
smoking,  obesity, [97, 98] and low levels of physical activity 
that relate to poorer general health are also associated
with occurrence of low back pain episodes or development
of persistent low back pain, although independent
associations remain uncertain.
A systematic review  (seven twin studies; 35,547 participants)
found the genetic influence on the liability to
develop low back pain ranged from 21% to 67%, with the
genetic component being higher for more chronic and
disabling low back pain than for inconsequential
back pain. A comprehensive genetic epidemiological
analysis of 15,328 Danish twins (44% monozygotic and
56% dizygotic) found that heritability estimates for pain
in different spinal regions were quite similar and there is
a moderate to high genetic correlation between the
phenotypes, which might indicate a common genetic
basis for a high proportion of spinal pain. 
An Australian case-crossover study (999 participants)
showed that awkward postures (OR 8.0, 95% CI
5.511.8), heavy manual tasks (5.0, 3.37.4), feeling
tired (3.7, 2.26.3), or being distracted during an activity
(25.0, 3.4184.5) were all associated with increased risk
of a new episode of low back pain.  Similarly, work
exposures of lifting, bending, awkward postures, and
tasks considered physically demanding were also
associated with an increased risk of developing low back
pain in low-income and middle-income countries. [56, 60] A
systematic review (25 cohorts) showed that the effect of
heavy workload on onset of low back pain ranged from
OR 1.61 (95% CI 1.082.39) to OR 4.1 (2.76.4).  The
existence of a causal pathway between these risk factors
and low back pain, however, remains unclear. 
Multifactoral contributors to persistent disabling low back pain
In recent decades, the biopsychosocial model has been
applied as a framework for understanding the complexity
of low back pain disability in preference to a purely
biomedical approach. Many factors including biophysical,
psychological, social and genetic factors, and
comorbidities (Figure 1) can contribute to disabling low
back pain (Table 2). However, no firm boundaries exist
among these factors and they all interact with each other.
Thus, persistent disabling low back pain is not merely a
result of nociceptive input. Although there are
substantially fewer data from low-income and middle-income
countries than from high-income countries, the
available data suggest similar multifactorial contributors
seem to be important in all countries. 
Although the role of biophysical impairments in the
development of disabling low back pain is not fully
understood, impairments are demonstrable in people
with persistent low back pain. One example is that
some people with persistent low back pain might have
alterations in muscle size,  composition,  and coordination 
that differ from those without pain. These
changes could be more than merely a direct
consequence of pain and are only partly affected by
psychological factors. 
Psychological factors are often investigated separately,
but there is a substantial overlap of constructs such as
depression, anxiety, catastrophising (ie, an irrational
belief that something is far worse that it really is), and
self-efficacy (ie, belief in one's ability to influence events
affecting one's life). The presence of these factors in
people who present with low back pain is associated
with increased risk of developing disability even though
the mechanisms are not fully understood (table 2). For
example, in a UK cohort study of 531 participants, pain-related
distress explained 15% and 28% of the variance
in pain and disability, respectively.  The fear-avoidance
model of chronic pain (including low back pain), which
describes how fear of pain leads to the avoidance of
activities and thus to disability, is well established. This
model has more recently been expanded to capture the
influence of maladaptive learning processes and
disabling beliefs on pain perception and on behaviours,
suggesting that pain cognitions have a central role in
the development and maintenance of disability, and
more so than the pain itself.  A systematic review,
including 12 mediation studies, identified self-efficacy,
psychological distress, and fear as intermediate factors
explaining some of the pathway between having neck or
back pain and developing disability.  The potential
importance of self-efficacy is supported by a systematic
review (83 studies; 15,616 participants) of chronic pain
conditions (23 low back pain studies) that found self-efficacy
to be consistently associated with impairment
and disability, affective distress, and pain severity. 
Therefore, some chronic pain treatments have shifted
away from aiming to directly alleviate pain to aiming to
change beliefs and behaviours. 
Social and societal factors
Chronic disabling low back pain affects people with low
income and short education disproportionally. In a UK
study of 2,533 people, life-time socio-economic status
predicted disability due to any pain condition in older age
(independent of comorbid conditions, psychological
indicators and body-mass index (BMI); OR 2.04 (95% CI
1.552.68).  Cross-sectional data from the USA
(National Health Interview Survey 200910, 5,103 people)
found that those with persistent low back pain were more
likely to have had less than high-school education (2.27,
1.533.38) and had an annual household income of
less than US$20,000 (2.29, 1.463.58).  Suggested
mechanisms for the effect of low education on back pain
include environmental and lifestyle exposures in lower
socio-economic groups, lower health literacy, and health
care not being available or adequately targeted to people
with low education.  Also, being in routine and manual
occupations and having increased physical workloads is
associated with disabling low back pain (table 2).
Central pain processing and modulation
Nociceptive input is processed throughout the nervous
system, including modulation within the spinal cord and
supraspinal centres. In chronic pain, supraspinal centres
can show varying levels of activation and can be recruited
for activation (or not) in a dynamic fashion contingent on
nociceptive drive, context, cognition, and emotion. If any
of these factors change, the same nociceptive input can
produce a different cerebral signature in the same
patient.  A systematic review (27 studies; 1,037 participants)
identified moderate evidence that patients with chronic
low back pain show structural brain differences in specific
cortical and sub-cortical areas, and altered functional
connectivity in pain-related areas following painful
stimulation.  The clinical implication of these findings
remains to be clarified. 
Multivariable predictive models
Pain intensity, psychological distress, and accompanying
pain in the leg or at multiple body sites are identified
as predictors across externally validated multi-variable
predictive models, which have been developed to identify
people at particular risk of developing disabling low
back pain (Appendix). In a systematic review (50 studies;
33,089 participants), the average amount of variance
explained in seven development samples was 43%,
indicating that most of the variation between individuals
is due to unknown or unmeasured factors. 
Despite advances in many aspects of understanding
low back pain, including the burden, course, risk
factors, and causes, some important limitations exist.
Most evidence comes from high-income countries, and
may or may not generalise to low-income and middle-income
countries. Although many factors are associated
with both the development of low back pain and the
transition to persistent disabling pain, the underlying
mechanisms, including the effect of co-occurring non-communicable
diseases, are poorly understood. Despite
the burden of low back pain, research is often not a
priority in low-income and-middle income countries,
and thus the consequences of low back pain in these
settings are largely unknown. The functional domains
used in the GBD 2015 study do not take into account
broader aspects of life, such as participation, well-being,
social identity, carer burden, use of health-care
resources, and work disability costs. In cost studies, a
top-down approach is most often used and those might
not capture all costs as seen from the individual point
of view in specific contexts.
Low back pain is now the number one cause of disability
globally. The burden from low back pain is increasing,
particularly in low-income and middle-income countries,
which is straining health-care and social systems that are
already over-burdened. Low back pain is most prevalent
and burdensome in working populations, and in older
people low back pain is associated with increased activity
limitation. Most cases of low back pain are short-lasting
and a specific nociceptive source cannot be identified.
Recurrences are, however, common and a few people
end up with persistent disabling pain affected by a range
of biophysical, psychological, and social factors. Costs
associated with health care and work disability attributed
to low back pain are enormous but vary substantially
between countries, and are related to social norms,
health-care approaches, and legislation. Although there
are several global initiatives to address the global burden
of low back pain as a public health problem, there is a
need to identify cost-effective and context-specific
strategies for managing low back pain to mitigate the
consequences of the current and projected future burden.
JH and MU were part of the team that developed the original proposal
for the series and coordinated production of papers. JH and MH led
the drafting of this paper in collaboration with the other authors.
AK, QL, and MU closely revised many sections. Thereafter all authors
contributed to all sections of the paper and edited it for key intellectual
content. JH, MJH, AK, JK, MLF, SG, RJS, QL, GP, and MU participated
in the authors meeting, drafted different sections of the paper, and took
part in discussions during the drafting process. All other authors have
read and provided substantive intellectual comments to the draft and
approved the final version of the paper.
The Lancet Low Back Pain Series Working Group
Rachelle Buchbinder (Chair) Monash University, Melbourne, Australia;
Jan Hartvigsen (Deputy Chair), University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark;
Dan Cherkin, Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, Seattle, USA;
Nadine E Foster, Keele University, Keele, UK;
Chris G Maher, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia;
Martin Underwood, Warwick University, Coventry, UK;
Maurits van Tulder, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Johannes R Anema, VU University Medical Centre, Amsterdam, Netherlands;
Roger Chou, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, USA;
Stephen P Cohen, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, USA;
Lucνola Menezes Costa, Universidade Cidade de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil;
Peter Croft, Keele University, Keele, UK;
Manuela Ferreira, Paulo H Ferreira, Damian Hoy, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia;
Julie M Fritz, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA;
Stιphane Genevay, University Hospital of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland;
Douglas P Gross, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada;
Mark Hancock, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia;
Jaro Karppinen, University of Oulu and Oulu University Hospital, Oulu, Finland;
Bart W Koes, Erasmus MC, University Medical Center Rotterdam, Rotterdam, Netherlands;
Alice Kongsted, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark;
Quinette Louw, Stellenbosch University, Tygerberg, South Africa;
Birgitta Φberg, Linkoping University, Linkoping, Sweden;
Wilco Peul, Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands;
Glenn Pransky, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, USA;
Mark Schoene, The Back Letter, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Newburyport, USA;
Joachim Sieper, Charite, Berlin, Germany;
Rob Smeets, Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands;
Judith A Turner, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, USA;
Anthony Woolf, Royal Cornwall Hospital and University of Exeter Medical School, Truro, UK.
Declaration of interests
See Appendix for authors' declaration of interests.
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Neuromuscular adaptations predict functional disability independently of clinical pain
and psychological factors in patients with chronic non-specific low back pain.
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Campbell P, Bishop A, Dunn KM, Main CJ, Thomas E, Foster NE.
Conceptual overlap of psychological constructs in low back pain.
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How does pain lead to disability? A systematic review and meta-analysis of
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chronic low back pain.
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Does life course socio-economic position influence chronic disabling pain in older adults?
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Formal education and back pain: a review.
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Roussel NA, Nijs J, Meeus M, Mylius V, Fayt C, Oostendorp R.
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Structural and functional brain abnormalities in chronic low back pain:
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A systematic review.
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