Expectations predict recovery in employees with back pain but not other bone and joint conditions

(Edmonton) Can back pain be a self-fulfilling prophecy? Quite possibly.

A recent University of Alberta study by Doug Gross and Michele Crites-Battié, researchers from the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, has shown that when an employee is suffering from back pain, the more they perceive their pain as chronic, the slower their recovery time.

The two looked at 1,040 workers' compensation claims and discovered that employees experiencing a work-related back injury were likely to have negative expectations of their rate of recovery and return-to-work time. This expectation seemed to have a bearing on their recovery time. The study was recently published in the Journal of Spinal Disorders & Techniques.

"Back pain is generally perceived to be a chronic condition, so workers often don't think they will ever get better, and we found that this expectation correlates with actual recovery," said Gross. The study also found this correlation is not present in workers with more specific conditions such as a fracture or joint dislocation.

The sample claimants each filled out a work-related recovery expectations survey: 29 per cent had back conditions; 44 per cent had sprains, strains or pain of other body parts besides the back; 23 per cent had specific injuries such as fracture, dislocation or amputation; and five per cent had other compensable conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Fifty-eight per cent of claimants with back pain reported negative expectations, a higher percentage compared to the other groups, which were all within 47 per cent to 51 per cent.

"We analyzed workers' scores on a work-related recovery expectations questionnaire and found that employees with negative expectations about their back pain were about 20 per cent less likely to return to work over the next year," said Crites-Battié.

What does this mean for employees and employers? "Back pain doesn't have to be chronic and people can recover. In fact, most back pain recovers quickly if people stay positive and keep up regular activities as much as possible," Gross said. "Workplace support from colleagues and company leadership is also very important. Co-workers and employers can help injured workers maintain optimistic expectations about return to work. A positive and collaborative approach between workers, employers, health-care providers and other stakeholders can go a long way towards helping workers recover from back problems."

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