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Teens who miss school from spinal pain more likely to have work ‘sick days’

Media release

Teenagers who take time off school due to low-back or neck pain are three times more likely to take sick days from their work as a young adult, new research led by Curtin University has found.

Young female with backpain sitting at a computer

The research, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, aimed to assess the link between how people respond to spinal pain as teenagers and how this impacted on their work-related sick leave in adulthood.

Co-author Professor Peter O’Sullivan, from the School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science at Curtin University, said the research identified a link between the two factors.

“Spinal pain, including low-back and neck pain, is the leading cause of disability that affects many Australians and can result in people avoiding normal and physical activities, not attending school, and limited work productivity, such as absenteeism,” Professor O’Sullivan said.

“We were able to investigate this link by reviewing data from the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study, a long-term study which surveyed participants about spinal pain and spinal-pain related absenteeism as adolescents, and then determine whether this connection was the beginning of an early-life pattern that set a trajectory for later in life.

“By using this data, we were able to make a new, strong connection between how participants responded to spinal pain at 17 years of age, and how they responded now they are in their 20s.”

Co-author John Curtin Distinguished Professor Leon Straker, also from Curtin’s School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, explained how teenagers and young adults who have negative beliefs about spinal pain and who are more distressed are more likely to take time off school and work.

“People who experience spinal pain are more likely to take absent days from their workplace or school, so it is important to address these negative responses in order to keep people participating in regular work and school activities,” Professor Straker said.

“Our findings suggest that pain beliefs and coping responses may be important therapeutic targets for physiotherapists to help keep people engaged in school and work, as we know that work participation has a positive influence on people’s physical and mental health.

“In order to maintain a sustainable workforce, there is a strong need to address pain coping responses in teenagers, which could in turn affect ongoing adult work participation rates.”

The research was co-authored by researchers from the School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science and the Curtin Business School at Curtin University, VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Orebro University in Sweden.

The research paper, ‘The association of adolescent spinal-pain-related absenteeism with early adulthood work absenteeism: A six-year follow-up data from a population-based cohort’, can be found online here.