Study design: The literature on psychological factors in neck and back pain was systematically searched and reviewed.
Objectives: To summarize current knowledge concerning the role of psychological variables in the etiology and development of neck and back pain.
Summary of background data: Recent conceptions of spinal pain, especially chronic back pain, have highlighted the role of psychological factors. Numerous studies subsequently have examined the effects of various psychological factors in neck and back pain. There is a need to review this material to ascertain what conclusions may be drawn.
Methods: Medical and psychological databases and cross-referencing were used to locate 913 potentially relevant articles. A table of 37 studies was constructed, consisting only of studies with prospective designs to ensure quality. Each study was reviewed for the population studied, the psychological predictor variables, and the outcome.
Results: The available literature indicated a clear link between psychological variables and neck and back pain. The prospective studies indicated that psychological variables were related to the onset of pain, and to acute, subacute, and chronic pain. Stress, distress, or anxiety as well as mood and emotions, cognitive functioning, and pain behavior all were found to be significant factors. Personality factors produced mixed results. Although the level of evidence was low, abuse also was found to be a potentially significant factor.
Conclusions: Psychological factors play a significant role not only in chronic pain, but also in the etiology of acute pain, particularly in the transition to chronic problems. Specific types of psychological variables emerge and may be important in distinct developmental time frames, also implying that assessment and intervention need to reflect these variables. Still, psychological factors account for only a portion of the variance, thereby highlighting the multidimensional view. Because the methodologic quality of the studies varied considerably, future research should focus on improving quality and addressing new questions such as the mechanism, the developmental time factor, and the relevance that these risk factors have for intervention.