Surfing for back pain patients: the nature and quality of back pain information on the Internet

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2001 Mar 1;26(5):545-57. doi: 10.1097/00007632-200103010-00020.


Study design: A prospective, systematic review of web sites related to back pain.

Objective: To assess the nature and quality of back pain-related information on the World Wide Web during a 2-year period.

Summary of background data: The Internet has become a rich source of medical information. Limited knowledge is available, however, about the quality of online resources. Although previous systematic reviews on medical-related web sites found problems in varying degrees with the credibility of information, no such review was conducted to assess the back pain-related sites.

Methods: A search of web sites was conducted in November 1996 using five search engines (AltaVista, Infoseek, Lycos, Yahoo, and Magellan) and two key terms ("back pain" and "back problems"). A sample of sites was evaluated by two independent reviewers. Each site was described by the type and nature of the sponsor, target audience, and content. Overall quality was assessed in terms of evidence-based information available.

Results: Seventy-four web sites were reviewed in 1996, and nine of them (12.2%) were identified as high-quality sites. Advertising was the focus of 80.8% of the sites. Eleven sites (14.9%) were found to be discontinued 1 year later, and 20 (27.0%) were not accessible by the reviewers at the 2-year follow-up evaluation. Of the remaining 54 sites, 44.4% were produced by for-profit companies, and most sites targeted people with back pain (63.0%). Only seven out of the nine high-quality sites held their ratings at the 2-year follow-up evaluation.

Conclusion: Most back pain-related web sites can be classified as advertising. The quality varied considerably, resulting in difficulties for patients to find useful information in this field. The increasing number of people seeking medical information on the Web creates a need for more high quality sites. Further, systematic review of web sites should be encouraged to monitor the accuracy of Internet publication.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bias*
  • Humans
  • Internet / standards*
  • Low Back Pain / epidemiology*
  • Medical Informatics / methods*
  • Medical Informatics / standards
  • Medical Informatics / statistics & numerical data
  • Prospective Studies
  • Quality Control
  • Reproducibility of Results