Skip to main content

Back pain is a rapidly increasing problem - especially among the elderly

New data shows that back pain is a rapidly increasing problem. The forecast says that in 2050 there will be 10% more Danes with serious back problems than today. Professor Jan Hartvigsen from the University of Southern Denmark is concerned about the development.

The association of international researchers in the organization "The Global Burden of Disease", which monitors the health status of the world's population, has analyzed over 30 years of global health data.

The Danish professor and research leader at the Center for Muscle and Joint Health at SDU's Department of Sports Science and Biomechanics, Jan Hartvigsen, participates in this connection in a research group led by Manuela Ferreira from the University of Sydney, which has now for the first time mapped the global development in the occurrence of back pain.

The researchers have used advanced computer models to project figures for back pain, published today in the prestigious journal The Lancet Rheumatology, which show that the number of cases of low back pain is increasing dramatically:

- Globally, in 2050 there will be 843 million people affected by back pain. There are 36% more people with serious back problems than today, says Professor Jan Hartvigsen from the Department of Sports Science and Biomechanics at the University of Southern Denmark, who also advises the World Health Organization WHO in relation to drawing up global guidelines for the treatment of back pain.

- The increase in Denmark will be approximately 10%, which is lower, but the increase is significant because we have a smaller increase in population than many other countries. It will be an enormous problem - both in relation to the individual people who find it difficult to cope with their everyday lives and for the economy, says Jan Hartvigsen.

It is especially the elderly who are affected

One speaks of 'severe back pain' when the pain affects a person's ability to do what they need in their everyday life; for example, going to work, doing the shopping and being self-sufficient at home.

The latest figures from the National Board of Health are from the 2022 report 'The Burden of Disease in Denmark', and they show that 1.7 million Danes report having back pain.

- In Denmark, we are already at a very high level, but the new global figures indicate that we will see a further increase - especially among the elderly. This will be a challenge in relation to how their abilities will be in relation to staying on the labor market, but also in relation to the need they get for help when they leave it, says Jan Hartvigsen.

- In the health system, we see virtually no offers that are tailored to the elderly. It is quite disturbing in the light of this study. We know that back pain strongly affects the ability to function in the elderly, and that elderly people with back pain are less self-reliant, especially if they have other concurrent chronic diseases. That is why back pain has such major negative consequences for the elderly - and also for society, because they require more help in everyday life.

Women are hit harder than men, and we don't know why

The new study shows that back pain affects people of all ages, but that it particularly affects older people and especially women.
- We lack good offers for older people, and we lack research into how we can better help older people with back pain. In particular, we lack knowledge about back pain in women.

- Throughout life, women report more frequent back pain and that they are more bothered by it. We do not currently know the reason for that difference, says Jan Hartvigsen.

The healthcare system does not have enough focus on what works
The professor believes that in Denmark we need to rethink the way the healthcare system is set up when it comes to back problems:

- We cannot continue to offer patients a treatment that we know does not work! We focus too much on medicine - especially strong painkillers - and operations. There is a need for us to invest much more in prevention, information, and for the healthcare system to offer the treatments that we researchers recommend. That doesn't happen today, says Jan Hartvigsen.

- Our approach to back pain has been to react when they come. But we do not offer citizens and patients the advice and treatment that we know is most effective. And we do very little to prevent through information and offers of physical training and manual treatment. We have to change that, emphasizes Jan Hartvigsen.

Read more 

Meet the researcher

Jan Hartvigsen is Professor and head of the Research Unit of Clinical Biomechanics.


Editing was completed: 24.05.2023