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Back pain is the biggest cause of ill health in the world: Issues cause more ‘years lived with disability’ than any other condition

back pain
  • Lower back aches cause more years lived in pain than any other ailment
  • Major international study finds neck pain is also a major cause of ill health
  • Time spent sitting while hunched over phones and computers is blamed
  • Other sources of ill health in Britain include falls, depression and diabetes


If your back is aching, you are not alone. Back pain causes more ill health than any other condition, including heart disease and malaria, a major international study has found. An analysis of the health of 188 countries found lower back aches cause more years lived in pain than anything else.

It is the top cause of ‘years lived with disability’ in Britain and worldwide. Neck pain is also a major cause of ill health, in second place after back pain in England and Scotland, and third place in Northern Ireland and Wales.

Steve Tolan, of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said: ‘If you think about the human body, it is designed to be active and moving. It’s not designed for the life that we live.’ Backache is starting to bite much earlier, with almost half of under-30s in pain. Time spent on chairs and sofas while hunched over mobile phones and tablet computers are blamed for children as young as 12 seeking treatment.

Other sources of ill health in Britain include falls, depression, diabetes, hearing loss, migraines and bronchitis. Depression and back pain were among the top ten causes of disabling but non-fatal illness in every country, the Lancet medical journal reports. An estimated 1.6billion people – almost a quarter of the world’s population – suffer tension headaches and 850million are afflicted by migraines.

Headaches triggered by medication overuse, or over-reliance on painkillers, are also a growing concern.
Almost twice as many years are lived with dementia today as 23 years ago and there has also been a ‘startling’ increase in diabetes and arthritis.

Headaches triggered by medication overuse

The increases can mainly be explained by the population growing and ageing. And the figures will continue to rise, study authors warn. They say health systems must spend more on non-fatal conditions. Study leader Professor Theo Vos, of the University of Washington in the US, said it was important ‘not just to keep people alive into old age – but also to keep them healthy’.

His colleague, Dr Christopher Murray, said: ‘As non-fatal illness and related ailments affect more people, countries must look closely at health policies and spending to target these conditions.’ Dr James Pickett, of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘Dementia is now an emerging global crisis. The need to find better treatments is becoming increasingly urgent.’

Fewer than one in 20 people is completely healthy. The analysis of 188 countries revealed that just 4.3 per cent of the population have no health problems. Worryingly, a third of the world’s population, some 2.3billion people, has at least five ailments.

And it is not just the elderly who are affected. Some 81 per cent of those who have at least five non-lethal but painful conditions are under 65 in age, the Lancet reports. The University of Washington-led study also revealed that just a third of children under five in developed nations are completely healthy.

severe neck ache

Just 0.03 per cent of adults aged 80 and over – or three people in 10,000 – have no ailments. Musculoskeletal disorders, which include back and neck pain, plus fractures and damaged tendons and ligaments, account for a fifth of all years lived with disability.
Schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, and drug and alcohol abuse, account for another fifth worldwide.

Copyright © Associated Newspapers Ltd

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