Low back and neck pain is an increasingly widespread and expensive condition worldwide, costing the US alone $88 billion a year – the third highest bill for any health condition – despite evidence most treatments do not work.

Millions of people worldwide suffer from low back and neck pain, most of it unexplained, although some professionals think it may be worsened by sitting at desks all day, carrying bags and general bad posture. Episodes of acute pain are very common, but experts say that medical investigations only make things worse and the best cure is often to take painkillers, exercise gently and wait for the pain to pass.

The rising bill for treatment in the US has been uncovered in a new study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at UW, which looked at public and private spending on all diseases in 2013. Diabetes was in first place on $101.4 billion and heart disease was second with $88.1 billion, but neck and lower back pain treatment costs were close behind, at $87.6 billion. The team split cancer into 29 separate conditions, which meant that none of them made the top 20, although combined the costs of treatment came to $115 billion.

The most remarkable thing, said Joseph Dieleman, lead author of the paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was the increase in treatment costs for lower back and neck pain, running at 6.5% a year against 3.5% overall. “In absolute terms, there was an increase from $30 billion in 1996 to $88 bilion in 2013,” he told the Guardian.


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