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Older Backs Have a Harder Time Bouncing Back

Back injuries among workers continue to escalate. As people work later in their lives, the number of injuries may go even higher. Are people less likely to recover from back pain as they get older? What are their chances of returning to work?

This study involved 1,052 patients with back injuries from work. The patients ranged in age from 22 to 59. They were divided into five groups based on age. None of the patients was working full-time at the beginning of the study.

The patients took part in a treatment program that included counseling for stress, pain management, and physical exercise. Patients were contacted a year after treatment to see how they were doing and whether they had returned to work. The authors wanted to know whether patients of different ages had different results from the treatment. 

Before treatment, younger patients generally hadn't been in pain as long as older patients. Younger patients were also less likely to have had back surgery. Even so, patients of all ages went into treatment with basically the same level of functioning. After treatment, however, younger patients tended to have much better functioning. Compared to older patients, younger patients showed better physical abilities both before and after treatment, and they were better able to shake depression.

Younger patients were also much more likely to go back to work after treatment. All of the patients under age 25 returned to work, but only 69 percent of patients 55 and older got back on the job. Once back on the job, younger patients were more likely to stick with it. Ninety-eight percent of them were still working one year after treatment, versus 63 percent of the 55 and older group.

Younger patients were more likely to get a different job than the one they'd had at the time of injury. Older patients often went back to the same employer to do the same job, or they became self employed. The authors consider that perhaps older workers feel they have fewer options in the workforce.

The authors conclude that patients have a harder time getting over back injuries as they get older. Older patients face other challenges that can hamper their return to work: worker burnout, easier access to Social Security Disability Income, and greater difficulty healing after injury. This study bolsters the notion that older backs have a harder time bouncing back.


Tom Mayer, MD, et al. Effect of Age on Outcomes of Tertiary Rehabilitation for Chronic Disabling Spinal Disorders. In Spine. June 15, 2001. Vol. 26. No. 12. Pp. 1378-1384.

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