Most people with acute low back pain are back at work within a month and fully recover within a few months. According to one study, about a third of patients with uncomplicated low back pain significantly improved after a week; two-thirds recovered by 7 weeks.
However, studies now suggest that up to 75% of patients suffer at least one recurrence of back pain over the course of a year. After 4 years, fewer than half of patients may be symptom-free. Some doctors are approaching the problem as one that is not necessarily curable and that needs a consistent on-going approach.
Specific conditions can determine the rate of improvement. For example:
- In the majority of patients with herniated disks, the condition improves (although the actual physical improvement may be slower than the reduction in pain). Researchers attempted to identify factors most likely to predict an elevated risk for recurrent pain and found that only depression was a significant factor in the majority of those who had not recovered.
- Spinal stenosis stabilizes in about 70% of cases and worsens in 15%.
Review Date: 04/07/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.