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A novel approach to break the cycle of low back pain

Australia’s first national care standard for low back pain is good news for the millions of people with this common health condition, with the health sector agreeing it’s time for change.

The Low Back Pain Clinical Care Standard, released today by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (the Commission), advocates a shift towards active approaches to support the one in six Australians[i] with low back pain.

The use of imaging tests, bed rest, pain medicines and surgery are now accepted as having a limited role in managing most people with low back pain. Current evidence shows an active approach is more effective and less risky for patients.

Low back pain can cause considerable distress and is a leading cause of disability worldwide. Back pain costs the Australian health system $4.8 billion each year[ii], and is the top reason for lost work productivity and early retirement.[iii] [iv]

The new standard provides a road map for healthcare practitioners to help patients manage low back pain episodes early and reduce their chance of ongoing problems.

Recommendations include self-management and physical activity, addressing psychological barriers to recovery such as thoughts and emotions about pain, as well as tackling social obstacles, including work and home stress.

Clinical lead for the new standard, Associate Professor Liz Marles, Clinical Director at the Commission and a general practitioner, said the standard marks a leap forward in effective care for low back pain patients, who may be treated across different healthcare disciplines and often receive conflicting advice.

Back problems and back pain are the second most common reason Australians seek care from their general practitioner[v], and one of the top five presentations to emergency departments.[vi] [vii] People with low back pain also seek help from allied health practitioners, such as physiotherapists and chiropractors.

Active approach is favoured over medical interventions

“The Low Back Pain Clinical Care Standard describes how active self-managed strategies that educate people about their pain and how to remain physically active and working are most effective to restore health,” A/Professor Marles said.

“Contrary to past schools of thought, for most cases of low back pain, we know that passive approaches such as bed rest and medication can lead to worsening disability. Also, if pain medicines are prescribed, they should be used to enable physical activities to help people recover, rather than eliminate pain.”

For people with a new episode of low back pain, a thorough initial assessment is vital and should screen for serious underlying causes, such as cancer, infections or nerve compression.

Although A/Professor Marles emphasised that the risk of a serious cause was very low (1-5%) and usually identified through history and physical examination, cautioning that otherwise investigations can sometimes paradoxically delay recovery.

She explained: “Referring low back pain patients for imaging who don’t have any signs of a serious condition may lead to unnecessary concern or wrong care. Common findings on back scans include disc degeneration, bulges and arthritis; yet these are often found on scans of people who do not have back pain – so these findings can be unhelpful and misleading.

“The good news is that most people who have a single episode of low back pain – 75 percent of patients[viii] – will improve rapidly and their pain will resolve within six weeks,” said A/Professor Marles.

For some people, however, she said the condition can put lives on hold, affecting a person’s ability to work, engage in physical and social activities, as well as their mental health.

“With this new standard, we are aiming to break the cycle and prevent a new episode of low back pain becoming a chronic problem for many Australians.”

Overcoming fear to recover from low back pain

Professor Peter O’Sullivan, Professor of Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy, Curtin University, is an advocate of tailoring care to the needs of patients who experience low back pain. He has joined the call for consistency in how early back pain is managed across professions.

“Low back pain is one of the most feared health conditions. We have a societal problem around the fundamental beliefs about back pain. There are many cases of fear-induced over-treatment of patients, which can make their condition worse,” he said.

“As practitioners, we need to understand what is going on with each patient and help them with a specific recovery plan. The evidence shows, and the standard reaffirms, that regular and graduated movement and activity are central to a better outcome for many people with an acute low back pain episode.”

Professor O’Sullivan said low back pain can cause significant discomfort and suffering for some people, but it was important to reassure patients that they have a good chance of recovery.

“With an aging population, growing obesity rates and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, implementing the new clinical care standard is our best chance to remove barriers to good patient outcomes. The recommendations aim to reduce investigations and treatments that may be ineffective or harmful.”

Professor O’Sullivan said it was important for clinicians to educate their patients and provide a clear recovery plan with self-care options that build people’s confidence in their back and put them in charge of their health, through knowledge, exercise, physical activity and work.

“Patients with low back pain may avoid physical activity and work, and potentially become fearful, depressed or anxious, which can lead to higher risk of disability,” he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes the advice given to people with low back pain can reinforce unhelpful beliefs and responses to pain. This is why the conversations healthcare practitioners have with their patients are paramount to their recovery.

“For a new episode of low back pain, if a patient is not recovering within six weeks, we need to reassess them and consider referral for additional targeted care,” Professor O’Sullivan added.

People experiencing low back pain should seek advice from their healthcare practitioner about the best care for their individual circumstances.


Media release

On 1 September 2022, the Commission released the first national Low Back Pain Clinical Care Standard to improve early management of patients with this common condition, which is a leading cause of disability worldwide.

The standard advocates a shift towards active approaches to support people with low back pain and reduce their chance of ongoing problems.

Poster or graphic

The Low Back Pain Clinical Care Standard will help to improve early management of patients with this common condition and reduce their chance of ongoing problems. 

This infographic highlights the scale of low back pain as a health issue in Australia, the disability burden and 6 steps for patients to help manage their pain.

Low back pain
Publication, report or update

The Low Back Pain Clinical Care Standard contains eight quality statements and eleven indicators to improve the early assessment, management, and review and referral of patients with low back pain.

Media enquiries

Angela Jackson, Communications and Media Manager
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