The Course of Back Pain in Primary Care

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Abstract

Study Design

Review paper of outcome studies among primary care back pain patients.

Objectives

To determine the short-term and long-term pain and functional outcomes of patients with back pain who are seeking treatment in primary care settings.

Summary of Background Data

Back pain has been viewed as running either an acute or a chronic course, but most patients experience recurrent back pain. This review summarizes outcome studies in light of the episodic course of back pain.

Methods

Studies reporting pain and functional outcome data for consecutive primary care patients with back pain were reviewed.

Results

Back pain among primary care patients typically is a recurrent condition for which definitions of acute and chronic pain based on a single episode are inadequate. Because a majority of patients experience recurrences, describing only the outcome of the initial back pain episode may convey a more favorable picture of long-term outcome than warranted. For the short-term follow-up evaluation, most patients improve considerably during the first 4 weeks after seeking treatment. Sixty-six percent to 75% continue to experience at least mild back pain 1 month after seeking care. At 1 month, approximately 33% report continuing pain of at least moderate intensity, whereas 20-25% report substantial activity limitations. For the long-term follow-up (1 year or more) period, approximately 33% report intermittent or persistent pain of at least moderate intensity, one in seven continue to report back pain of severe intensity, and one in five report substantial activity limitations.

Conclusion

Results from existing studies suggest that back pain among primary care patients typically runs a recurrent course characterized by variation and change, rather than an acute, self-limiting course.

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