As the literature now stands, a bewildering number and variety of biological, psychological and social factors are, apparently, implicated in back problems. However, if and how these have a direct influence on back problems is not clear. Obesity, for example, has in many studies been shown to be associated with back problems but there is no evidence for a causal link. This could be explained by a dearth of suitably designed studies but also because obesity may be but a proxy for some other, truly explanatory variable. Coping has been linked with, particularly, persistent back problems as well as with health in general. The question is, whether coping could be the explanatory link between, for example, these two variables. A cross-sectional study was undertaken using data from the Swedish Army, consisting of the entire cohort of males (N = 48,502) summoned in 1998 to serve in the military. The purpose of the study was to investigate the relation between five independent variables and two dependent variables ("outcome variables"). The independent variables were two anthropomorphic variables (height and body mass index), two psychological variables (intellectual capacity and coping in relation to stress), and one social variable (type of education). The two outcome variables were back problems and ill health. In particular, we wanted to determine whether controlling for coping would affect the associations between the other four independent variables and the two outcome variables.
Data for the analysis come from a battery of standardized examinations, including medical examinations, a test of intellectual capacity, and a test of coping in relation to stress. Each of these examinations was conducted independently of the others. Unadjusted and adjusted odds ratios were calculated for the outcome variables of back problems and ill health.
The associations between height, body mass index, intellectual capacity, type of education and the two outcome variables (back problems and ill health) were weak to moderate. Additionally, there were strong associations between coping and the two outcome variables and when controlling for coping the previously noted associations diminished or disappeared, whereas none of the other variables had a large effect on the association between coping and the two outcome variables.
Coping emerged as strongly associated with both back problem and ill health and coping had a leveling effect on the associations between the other independent variables and the two outcome variables. This study is noteworthy particularly because the association with coping is so robust. It is a retrospective, cross-sectional study, however, and, as such it raises questions of causality; which – if any – came first, inability to cope or back pain? The results of this study call attention to the need for a prospective study, in which coping is clearly defined. Such a study has been undertaken and will be presented separately.
Index terms: back pain, coping, education, height, BMI, intellectual capacity, bio-psycho-social model, epidemiology, cohort, cross-sectional study