Objectives: We aimed to examine the prognosis of acute low back pain (LBP) in patients in general practice and to identify prognostic factors associated with the long-term prognosis based on information immediately available to the GP.
Method: We conducted a prospective cohort study in general practice in Denmark. The patients were those aged 18-60 years consulting their GP due to an episode of LBP lasting less than 2 weeks. The GPs collected data regarding 34 exposure variables, including their global assessment of the likelihood of chronic LBP. Outcome variables were collected from the patients after 1, 6 and 12 months. The outcome measures were days on sick leave, and functional or complete recovery from LBP.
Results: In total, 503 (96%) patients were followed during the whole study period. Fifty per cent of the patients on sick leave returned to work within 8 days; after 1 year, only 2% remained on sick leave. At the 1-year follow-up, 45% of the patients continued to complain of LBP. Logistic regression analyses showed that the factors most significantly associated with poor long-term LBP outcome were (i) severity of LBP at inclusion, (ii) assessments by the GP of susceptibility to develop chronic LBP and (iii) a history of LBP having caused previous sick leave.
Conclusions: LBP in general practice has a good prognosis with regard to sick leave, but a high proportion of patients continue to complain of LBP. We were not able to identify objective measures that strongly predict the prognosis of the individual LBP patient. The overall assessment by the GPs seems to be the most important predictor associated with the long-term outcome.