University of Leicester eBulletin

Pioneering New Back Pain Relief Technique To Go National

October 2002
No 227

A University of Leicester Medical Department has just received £650,000 funding from the Government to develop nationwide a pioneering technique in back pain relief that has been successfully trialled by Leicestershire Hospitals. 

The award will fund a multi-centre, randomised, controlled trial that is expected to reverse previous assumptions about the work prospects of people with long-term pain-related inability.

The new techniques developed at Leicester involve integrating health care, employment training and vocational assistance into work. The aim is to identify a person’s potential rather than the barriers presented by the back disability, and develop their employability in the eyes of local employers.

The team includes physiotherapists, psychologists and private industries recruited to offer opportunities to those with back pain. The candidates go through an intense six-week activity programme with later follow up to assist them into work.

The funding, which comes from the Department of Work and Pensions, will allow the team of researchers from the University, led by Dr Paul Watson from the Department of Anaesthesia, Pain Management and Critical Care, to pursue their investigations. Dr Watson is the first person in the country to work as a Consultant Physiotherapist at the University of Leicester Hospitals NHS Trust.

Findings so far have indicated that disease and pain are less important in work absence and unemployment than psychosocial factors.They suggest that people with pain-associated disabilities can work if they can overcome the considerable psychological and physical barriers to work and if suitable rehabilitation is provided. This could be both cost-effective for the state and fulfilling for people with such disabilities.

Money could therefore be diverted from benefits to rehabilitation into sustainable employment. At a conservative estimate, the healthcare cost for back pain alone was £1.6 billion in 1999 and the indirect costs of benefits and lost production in industry amounted to £10.7 billion.  Benefits associated with wage replacement considerably outweigh the cost of healthcare to help people back into work. People with chronic pain accounted for 80 per cent of these costs.

Traditionally, a person out of work for more than two years due to chronic pain has only a 2-10 per cent chance of ever working again and will remain on benefits. The number of people with back pain on Incapacity Benefits doubled in the ten years between 1988 and 1998. This was not because more people got back pain, but because once on benefits they found it difficult to get off them. This is due to the attitudes of employers, patients, healthcare providers, employment services and the social welfare system.  

After six months pioneering a vocational rehabilitation programme for unemployed people with chronic pain, University of Leicester researchers found that 39.5 per cent of clients on the programme were employed and a further 25.7 per cent were engaged in job-training, education or voluntary work.

An increasingly ageing workforce will bring an increase in the number of pain-related problems.   As birth rates fall, employers will no longer be able to replace workers with chronic pain by younger staff. New approaches need to be developed to help people with pain-related symptoms to continue in work.

The new multi-centre trials will determine the type of programme most suitable for people with different degrees of pain-related disabilities, and will carry out an in-depth socio-economic assessment of the proposed programme.

Dr Paul Watson Senior Lecturer in Pain Management and Rehabilitation at the University of Leicester said: “The government seems determined to reduce the amount paid to people on benefits. Living on low benefits is very difficult, we believe that people must be given the best opportunity of getting help to allow them to get the advantages from employment most of us take for granted.

“The University of Leicester is leading the way in respect to interdisciplinary medical research. Using this method, people who had been off work for an average of four years (ie: with little chance of ever getting back to work) were able to get back to paid employment.

“This potentially represents a massive saving in benefit payments and restores patients’ quality of life, self esteem and earning potential.”

NOTE TO EDITORS:   Further information is available from Dr Paul Watson University of Leicester Department of Anaesthesia and Pain Management, telephone 0116 258 4613, email

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