Chronic back problems are long-term health conditions that include specific health conditions, such as disc disorders, sciatica and curvature of the spine, and back pain or problems that are not directly associated with a specific disease (such as osteoarthritis). They are common and associated with high impact on the community in terms of economic and disease burden, as well as on individuals in terms of quality of life and disability.

How common?

In 2014-15, an estimated 3.7 million Australians (16%, or 1 in 6 people) had chronic back problems. The prevalence was similar for males and females, and rose with age: from <1% of people aged 0-14 to 27% among people aged 65-74 before declining slightly to 24% among people aged 75 and over. More than three-quarters (77%) of people with chronic back problems were of working age (15-64).

Economic and disease burden

In 2008-09, around 1.8% of total health-care expenditure in Australia ($1.2 billion) was attributed to back problems.

In 2011, 'back pain and problems' were the third leading cause of disease burden in Australia, accounting for 3.6% of the total burden across all diseases and injuries.

Quality of life

People with chronic back problems are more likely to report poor quality of life than those in the general population. In 2014-15, among people with chronic back problems:

  • an estimated 8.9% perceived their health as poor, compared with 4.4% in the general population
  • 6.8% experienced very high levels of psychological distress, compared with 3.7% in the general population
  • 3.7% experienced very severe bodily pain, compared with 1.5% in the general population
  • about 11% experienced no pain, compared with 31% in the general population.


Among people with a disability, those who have a chronic back problem are more likely than those without a chronic back problem to report limitations and restrictions in relation to mobility, self-care, employment and social participation.

In 2012, 28% of the population with a disability (around 1.2 million people) had both disability and a chronic back problem. Of those:

  • 43% experienced limitation in activities related to mobility
  • 28% experienced limitation in activities related to self-care
  • 77% who were of working age experienced a restriction in employment
  • 34% experienced a restriction in social participation.