Recurrence and Care Seeking After Acute Back Pain: Results of a Long-Term Follow-Up Study

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To explore the relationship between type of initial care as well as the likelihood of recurrence and consequent care seeking behavior.

Research Design.

Prospective observational cohort recruited from 208 randomly selected North Carolina practices. Cohort study examined the recurrence of low back pain among patients free of back pain 3 months after their index visit to a practitioner for that problem. The following four practitioner strata were examined: primary care providers, chiropractors, orthopedic surgeons, and practitioners in a group model HMO. Patients were interviewed by telephone at 6 and 22 months after the initial visit.

Main Outcome Measures.

Rates of disabling and non-disabling low back pain; functional status using the Roland back disability scale; and care seeking.


Rates of recurrence were substantial; functionally disabling recurrence rates varied between 8% and 14% between 3 to 6 months, and 20% to 35% between 6 to 22 months. Differences in rates among practitioner strata were statistically significant only between 6 to 22 months with higher recurrence rates for HMO patients. Functional status, number of bed days, and time off work were very similar among the practitioner strata. Care seeking, however, was greater among those patients who had initially seen a chiropractor for their back pain. Patients with recurrence saw the same practitioner type they had seen for the index episode 88% of the time. Satisfaction was slightly greater for patients who saw chiropractors when compared with patients seeing allopathic physicians.


The recurrence of low back pain is common. Severe disability is rare. Patients who had sought care from chiropractors are more likely to return for recurrences than patients who had initially sought care from MDs.

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