Preventing progression to chronicity in first onset, subacute low back pain: an exploratory study

Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2009 Apr;90(4):545-52. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2008.10.032.


Objectives: To evaluate the effects of a behavioral medicine intervention, relative to an attention control, in preventing chronic pain and disability in patients with first-onset, subacute low back pain (LBP) with limitations in work-role function.

Design: A 2-group, experimental design with randomization to behavioral medicine or attention control groups.

Setting: Orthopedic clinic at a Naval Medical Center.

Participants: Sixty-seven participants with first-onset LBP of 6 to 10 weeks of duration and impairment in work function, of whom 50 completed all 4 therapy sessions and follow-up 6 months after pain onset.

Intervention: Four 1-hour individual treatment sessions of either behavioral medicine, focused on back function and pain education, self-management training, graded activity increases, fear reduction, and pain belief change; or attention control condition, focused on empathy, support, and reassurance.

Main outcome measures: The primary outcome was proportion of participants classified as recovered, according to pre-established clinical cutoffs on standardized measures, signifying absence of chronic pain and disability at 6 months after pain onset. Secondary analyses were conducted on pain, disability, health status, and functional work category. Intervention credibility and pain belief manipulation checks were also evaluated.

Results: Chi square analyses comparing proportions recovered at 6 months after pain onset for behavioral medicine and attention control participants found relative rates of 52% versus 31% in the modified intent-to-treat sample (P=.09) and 54% versus 23% for those completing all 4 sessions and 6-month follow-up (P=.02). At 12 months, 79% of recovered and 68% of chronic pain participants still met criteria for their respective groups (P<.0001). Recovered participants also had higher rates of functional work status recovery at 12 months (recovered: 96% full duty and 4% light duty; chronic pain: 61% full duty, 18% light duty, and 21% medical discharge, respectively; P=.03).

Conclusions: Early intervention using a behavioral medicine rehabilitation approach may enhance recovery and reduce chronic pain and disability in patients with first-onset, subacute LBP. Effects are stronger for participants attending all 4 sessions and the follow-up assessment.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Behavioral Medicine / methods*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Disease Progression
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / classification
  • Low Back Pain / rehabilitation*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Measurement
  • Patient Education as Topic / methods
  • Physical Therapy Modalities
  • Quality of Life
  • Treatment Outcome