What role do hospitals play in treating back problems?

Back problems can be managed in a variety of ways including pain management, rehabilitation, patient education and surgery.

Spinal surgery could be considered in specific circumstances in the treatment of back problems. It may include:

  • removing bone to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots (segment of spinal nerve attached to the spinal cord)
  • removing a portion of the intervertebral disc
  • spinal fusion surgery (joining of two vertebrae to stop movement between them)
  • replacing an intervertebral disc.

Data from the AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database (NHMD) show that in 2016–17:

  • there were 175,136 hospitalisations with a principal diagnosis of a back problem
  • the rate of hospitalisations was greater for females than males (790 per 100,000 compared with 645 per 100,000)
  • the rate of hospitalisation for back problems increased with age (Figure 1).

Common reasons for back problem hospitalisations

The top 3 main reasons for back problem hospitalisations were:

  • lower back pain (28% of hospitalisations for back problems)
  • lumbar and other intervertebral disc disorders with radiculopathy (for example, when one or more nerve roots is affected and does not work properly) (10%)
  • spinal stenosis (abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal that causes compression of the spinal cord) (8.3%).

Figure 1: Rate of hospitalisation for back problems, by sex and age, 2016–17

This vertical bar chart compares the rate (per 100,000 population) of hospitalisations for back problems, across various age groups by sex, in 2016–17. The hospitalisation rate was highest in the 80–84 age group for both males (2,465) and females (3,285), and lowest in the ≤40 age group for both males (178) and females (189).

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database (Data table).

In the 10 years from 2006–07 to 2016–17, the age-standardised acute care hospitalisation rate for back problems among Australians increased slightly from 621 per 100,000 to 752 per 100,000 (Figure 2). Over the same period, the hospitalisation rate for sub-acute and non-acute care for back problems increased nearly 3 times, from 73 per 100,000 to 220 per 100,000.

Figure 2: Age-standardised rate of hospitalisations for back problems (as any diagnosis), by care type, 2006–07 to 2016–17

Note: Age-standardised to the 2001 Australian population.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database (Data table).