Six Questions to Assess Back Pain

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Todd Meier

What do you do when an employee comes to you requesting accommodations because of back pain? Then, what do you do if the employee’s doctor does not give you the information you need to identify suitable, job-relevant accommodations? What are some common effective accommodations? These are some of the questions I hear regularly when working with employees and employers to accommodate back pain. In this post, I will explore ways to address these questions and begin to consider accommodations for employees.

Where Do You Start?

When considering how to accommodate an employee who is experiencing back pain, it is important to attempt to answer several questions to help assess the situation:

  • What are the symptoms and/or limitations, according to the employee?
  • How are these symptoms and/or limitations impairing the employee’s ability to perform his or her job duties?
  • What are the essential job tasks the employee needs to perform and possible risk factors associated with these tasks that are exacerbating the employee’s condition, such as awkward posture, repetitive movement or vibration?
  • Is the condition acute or chronic? According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, back pain falls into two categories: short-term and chronic.1
    • Acute or short-term back pain can last from a few days to a few weeks, and can result from a disorder like arthritis or from trauma. A back trauma could involve a sports injury, doing yard work at home or a sudden jolt, such as a fall or car accident.1
    • Chronic back pain is pain that continues for more than three months and is progressive, and in some cases, it can be difficult to determine the cause.1
  • How has the employee coped with the symptoms/limitations in the past?

Once these questions are answered, it also is important to evaluate the employee’s medical limitations and restrictions as reported by the treating provider. In a program such as Workplace PossibilitiesSM from The Standard, this evaluation would be performed by a qualified on-site consultant.2

Answering these questions and gathering relevant medical information is an important first step toward identifying accommodations to help employees with back pain. In the next part of this series, I’ll share some examples of successful solutions for employees in both office and industrial jobs.


1 NINDS Back Pain Information Page. Available at: Accessed July 5, 2012.

2 The Workplace Possibilities program is available through The Standard’s Group Disability Insurance. An on-site consultant is available for groups with 1,000 or more employees. This policy has exclusions, limitations, reduction of benefits and terms under which the policy may be continued in force or terminated.