When people think of the "worst" health conditions, they often think of diseases that cause the most deaths or kill the most quickly.
But death is only one factor in the grand scheme of disease severity and cost. Many conditions, such as back pain, depression or even acne, can severely hinder a person's day-to-day life.
To account for this, Harvard and the World Bank created the Disability-Adjusted Life Year metric, or DALY, in 1990, which has subsequently been used by the World Health Organization. This attempts to represent a broader scope of the personal and societal costs that diseases can have, not only limited to the deaths they cause. According to the WHO, "one DALY can be thought of as one lost year of 'healthy' life."
For example, if you die of lung cancer at 69 instead of the U.S. average life expectancy of 78.7, that would cause a burden, or loss, of nearly ten disability-adjusted life years on society. Conversely, if you develop debilitating neck pain and can't work for a year, but then surgery or therapy help you return healthy life afterward, the disease still caused a burden of one disability-adjusted life year.
The WHO quantifies the burden of a disease by summing all the disability-adjusted life years it causes in a country's population.
The experts at HealthGrove, a health data analysis and visualization site that's part of Graphiq, decided to look at this burden of disease data from the Global Health Data Exchange (most recently released in 2013) to determine the worst, non-deadly health conditions.
These health conditions are non-fatal, meaning they never directly cause death. However, they cause massive losses of healthy years of life across the American population. The visualization above shows that back pain cost Americans 1,296 healthy years per 100,000 people in 2013.
In an economical sense, being disabled by a disease or caring for someone disabled can cost more financially than if they were to die, which makes this metric an important one to consider. After all, if a majority of people in a city or country can't work due to illness, it can create a huge burden on the society as whole. Additionally, not only is long-term illness fiscally expensive, but it can psychologically and emotionally tax those involved.
Low back pain, for example, affects more than one third of adults in their daily living, exercising and sleeping, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. This condition causes many days of missed work, both for those with the pain and family members who might be caring for them. The prevalence of this condition has created a multi-billion dollar industry and a perpetual search for new surgeries and treatments, like disc replacements.
If back pain is any indicator, it shows just how expensive and debilitating non-deadly health conditions can be.