Methodological considerations in the assessment of direct and indirect costs of back pain: a systematic scoping review

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Background Back pain is a common and costly health problem worldwide. There is yet a lack of consistent methodologies to estimate the economic burden of back pain to society. Objective To systematically evaluate the methodologies used in the published cost of illness (COI) literature for estimating the direct and indirect costs attributed to back pain, and to present a summary of the estimated cost burden. Methods Six electronic databases were searched to identify COI studies of back pain published in English up to February 2021. A total of 1,588 abstracts were screened, and 55 full-text studies were subsequently reviewed. After applying the inclusion criteria, 45 studies pertaining to the direct and indirect costs of back pain were analysed. Results The studies reported data on 15 industrialised countries. The national cost estimates of back pain in 2015 USD ranged from $259 million ($29.1 per capita) in Sweden to $71.6 billion ($868.4 per capita) in Germany. There was high heterogeneity among the studies in terms of the methodologies used for analysis and the resulting costs reported. Most of the studies assessed costs from a societal perspective (n = 29). The magnitude and accuracy of the reported costs were influenced by the case definition of back pain, the source of data used, the cost components included and the analysis method. Among the studies that provided both direct and indirect cost estimates (n = 15), indirect costs resulting from lost or reduced work productivity far outweighed the direct costs. Conclusion Back pain imposes substantial economic burden on society. This review demonstrated that existing published COI studies of back pain used heterogeneous approaches reflecting a lack of consensus on methodology. A standardised methodological approach is required to increase credibility of the findings of COI studies and improve comparison of estimates across studies.

Bibliographic note

Publisher Copyright: © 2021 Zemedikun et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0251406
Number of pages17
JournalPLOS One
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 11 May 2021