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Lower Spine News

Work Restrictions Are No Quick Fix for Aching Backs

Low back pain (LBP) on the job is so common that large companies have come up with many policies to help protect workers--and company profits. LBP is costly in terms of productivity, insurance claims, and missed work. In fact, LBP is one of the most frequent causes of sick leave.

One of the policies that companies use to limit the effects of LBP on the job is to give employees "work restrictions." Work restrictions are specific to the job done by the employee with LBP. For instance, a worker with LBP may come to work but not be required to do the usual heavy lifting or climbing. Work restrictions allow the employee to get back to work and stay active, which is important in managing LBP, while still giving the back time to heal.

These authors studied whether work restrictions decrease sick leave and get people back to work faster. They looked at the records for 240 workers who missed work due to LBP at a large utility company in New York. Of the 240 workers, 43 percent were given work restrictions, mostly to limit lifting, pushing, and pulling. The workers who had work restrictions and those that didn't took about the same amount of sick leave. Almost all of the workers in both groups had returned to work within a year. The workers with restrictions went back to work a bit sooner than the other group, but 22 percent of them never had the work restrictions lifted. Workers without work restrictions were also somewhat less likely to have LBP come back.

The results seem to show that work restrictions aren't especially helpful in cases of LBP. However, the authors don't know exactly what the results mean. Work restrictions may have been given only in the worst cases of LBP, or workers may not have followed their work restrictions carefully. The authors recommend further research that is more specific about how and when work restrictions are used. They also recommend looking into job modifications for all workers to help prevent LBP.


Rudi Hiebert, BS, et al. Work Restrictions and Outcome of Nonspecific Low Back Pain. In Spine. April 1, 2003. Vol. 28. No. 7. Pp. 722-728.

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