Research needed to explore reasons for increase in people unable to work due to back pain, says RCGP

Responding to figures from the ONS showing an increase in the number of people signed off as unable to work due to back pain, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, Chair of the Royal College of GPs said: 

“Back pain is an all-too-common condition, affecting millions of patients, and can be really debilitating - in some cases to the extent they really can’t undertake everyday tasks without feeling terrible pain. It is, therefore, of no surprise that many sufferers of back pain are forced into a position of economic inactivity, particularly if they have a physical job, as the condition can have a serious impact on a person’s ability to work. It can also be really depressing to live with chronic back pain. 

“While back pain alone can be very distressing for a patient, in many cases, it may be just one of a number of conditions they are living with - the ONS data found that only 11% of economically inactive patients citing back pain as their main condition had no other health conditions. What GPs have reported is that due to cost-of-living pressures, some patients are actually refusing fit notes because they can’t afford to not work, even if they really shouldn’t be, so the figures could even be higher if this was taken into account. 

“It’s hard to say, without proper research being undertaken, why more people are becoming economically inactive as a result of back or neck pain. People are working for longer, and as they do, they are living with multiple chronic conditions. There is also evidence that links lower back pain and obesity. New ways of working, often without the right equipment and people waiting until problems are more serious before seeking treatment, could also be factors and something that would be interesting to explore more deeply, so the issue can be addressed properly. 

“Demand on general practice is only going to intensify – so decisive measures must be taken now to ensure GPs and our teams can deliver the care our patients experiencing chronic conditions like back pain need. Our manifesto for the forthcoming general election outlines seven solutions – including funding for GP recruitment and retention - that will help improve patient access to safe, timely care and ensure that there are enough GPs to safeguard the future of general practice and the wider NHS.”

Further information

RCGP press office: 0203 188 7659

Notes to editors

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 54,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.