Cost of Spinal Disorders

Researchers from Australia are trying to pinpoint the indirect costs associated with spinal disorders in the work place. In this study, they evaluated the cost (in dollars) of retirement among workers between the ages of 45 and 64 (Baby Boomers). Each worker reported leaving work permanently due to spinal disorders such as disc herniation, scoliosis, mechanical low back or neck pain, and spinal deformities.

The personal cost of lost wages as well as the burden on the government in the form of lost taxes and welfare or unemployment benefits was in the billions. Workers who seek early retirement due to spinal disorders earn one-fourth the wages of someone who has no back pain and who is employed full-time.

The authors focus their report on three areas: The Problem, The Impact, and The Plan. The problem as stated is the high personal and national cost of spinal disorders in middle-aged workers who retire early. Previous studies have reported on the cost of missed work (absenteeism), sick leave, inactivity (reduced productivity), and worker’s compensation but not retirement.

It is clear there is a significant relationship between early retirement and the effect on income. And the lost income is reflected in reduced taxes collected by the government as well as the increased costs associated with government support payments to retirees.

The impact goes even deeper than that, though. Declines in taxable income means less spending, fewer taxes collected, and less money to support government programs. There are also fewer younger individuals entering the workforce. When Baby Boomers retire early without younger workers entering the picture, the impact from reduction in labor is magnified.

So what can be done about this problem? What’s The Plan? The authors suggest a two-step approach. First, prevention of spinal disorders and second, getting injured workers or workers with painful spinal disorders back to work rather than into retirement. These are the keys to keeping the labor force in full work participation.

Research has shown that exercise is one way to prevent (or if necessary: to manage) spinal disorders. In fact, when comparing different forms of exercise (stretching, calisthenics, aerobics, coordination, strength training, relaxation) people generally improve across the board. There are fewer episodes of back pain, less absenteeism at work, and greater productivity.

A more specific approach may be needed for those workers who continue to experience a decreased ability to carry out daily activities due to back pain from spinal disorders. Rather than a global exercise approach, physical therapy to address individual problems may be helpful.

And when conservative (nonoperative) care fails to get the worker back into the labor force, surgery has been shown to benefit many people. Even with the added costs of these treatment measures, they are more cost-effective than not getting anyone back on the job.

The Plan proposed by these researchers also includes government investment in preventive health measures. Spending money to prevent chronic spine problems that would otherwise force early retirement of workers still capable of staying in the labor force will ultimately pay off. More workers on-the-job means more taxable income and government revenue to support government budgets.

The authors conclude that the cost of early retirement because of spinal disorders is very high. Maintaining the health of the work force and prevention of spinal disorders is important now and into the future. In fact, these goals are essential to the personal health of the labor force as well as the economic health of the country. A plan of action must be put into place soon before the work force dwindles further.