OBJECTIVE: To compare public perceptions and patient perceptions about back pain and its management with current clinical guidelines. DESIGN: A survey using a quota sampling technique. SETTING: On-the-street in South Derbyshire in the UK. SUBJECTS: 507 members of the general population aged between 20 and 60 years, including a representative subsample of 40% who had experienced back pain in the previous year. SURVEY: To test knowledge and perceptions of back pain and its best management using statements based on The Back Book which was produced in conjunction with the Royal College of General Practitioners and based on best available evidence. In addition expectations of back pain management and outcome were investigated. RESULTS: Forty percent of this sample had experienced back pain during the previous year, more than half of whom had consulted their GP. More than half believed the spine is one of the strongest part of the body, but nearly two thirds incorrectly believed that back pain is often due to a slipped disc or trapped nerve. Two thirds expected a GP to be able to tell them exactly what was wrong with their back, although slightly fewer among those who had consulted. Most expected to have an X-ray, especially if they had consulted. Most recognised that the most important thing a GP can do is offer reassurance and advice. The responses were not related to age, gender or social class. Those who had consulted appeared to have slightly more misconceptions: this could be partly due to people with more severe problems or more misconceptions being more likely to consult, but also suggests either that GPs are still giving inaccurate information or at least failing to correct these misconceptions. CONCLUSIONS: The problem of managing back pain might be reduced by closing the gap between the public's expectations and what is recommended in the guidelines through the promotion of appropriate health education messages. Further professional education of GPs also appears to be needed to update them in the most effective approach to managing back pain.