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Physical characteristics of the back are not predictive of low back pain in healthy workers: A prospective study

An Van Nieuwenhuyse12, Geert Crombez3, Alex Burdorf4, Geert Verbeke5, Raphael Masschelein2, Guido Moens26, Philippe Mairiaux7* and the BelCoBack Study Group

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology, Scientific Institute of Public Health, Brussels, Belgium

2 Department of Public Health, Section of Occupational, Environmental and Insurance Medicine, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

3 Department of Psychology, University of Ghent, Ghent, Belgium

4 Department of Public Health, Erasmus MC, University Medical Center Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

5 Department of Public Health, Biostatistical Centre, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

6 External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work IDEWE, Leuven, Belgium

7 Occupational Health and Health Education unit, Department of Public Health, University of Liège, Liège, Belgium

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BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2009, 10:2  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-10-2

Published: 5 January 2009



In the working population, back disorders are an important reason for sick leave and permanent work inability. In the context of fitting the job to the worker, one of the primary tasks of the occupational health physician is to evaluate the balance between work-related and individual variables. Since this evaluation of work capacity often consists of a physical examination of the back, the objective of this study was to investigate whether a physical examination of the low back, which is routinely performed in occupational medicine, predicts the development of low back pain (LBP).


This study is part of the Belgian Low Back Cohort (BelCoBack) Study, a prospective study to identify risk factors for the development of low back disorders in occupational settings. The study population for this paper were 692 young healthcare or distribution workers (mean age of 26 years) with no or limited back antecedents in the year before inclusion. At baseline, these workers underwent a standardised physical examination of the low back. One year later, they completed a questionnaire on the occurrence of LBP and some of its characteristics. To study the respective role of predictors at baseline on the occurrence of LBP, we opted for Cox regression with a constant risk period. Analyses were performed separately for workers without any back antecedents in the year before inclusion ('asymptomatic' workers) and for workers with limited back antecedents in the year before inclusion ('mildly symptomatic' workers).


In the group of 'asymptomatic' workers, obese workers showed a more than twofold-increased risk on the development of LBP as compared to non-obese colleagues (RR 2.57, 95%CI: 1.09 – 6.09). In the group of 'mildly symptomatic' workers, the self-reports of pain before the examination turned out to be most predictive (RR 3.89, 95%CI: 1.20 – 12.64).


This study showed that, in a population of young workers wh no or limited antecedents of LBP at baseline, physical examinations, as routinely assessed in occupational medicine, are not useful to predict workers at risk for the development of back disorders one year later.