Since World War II, the incidence of chronic low back disability has increased dramatically, at a rate disproportionate to all other health conditions. The factors that contribute to this disability are reviewed. Psychosocial and work environmental factors are far more accurate predictors of disability than physical factors. A predictive risk model is described that allows an estimate of the patient's risk of becoming chronically disabled early in the course of a low back pain episode. This model demonstrates that work environment, perception of compensability, and the duration of the current episode are significant predictors. Surprisingly, psychologic factors, as measured by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MPI), are not predictive in the cohorts studied to date. Although there are inherent limitations in study design, the results offer additional credence to the hypothesis that low back pain disability is often the result of psychosocial and work environmental factors. The model may also be used to address the hypothesis that patients at risk for future disability are more effectively treated by early, aggressive rehabilitation programs.
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