Background: Epidemiological studies have identified important causal and prognostic factors for back pain, but these frequently only identify a proportion of the variance, and new factors add little to these models. Recently, interest has increased in studying diseases over the life course, stimulated by the 1997 book by Kuh and Ben-Shlomo, a move accompanied by important conceptual and methodological developments. This has resulted in improvements in the understanding of other conditions like cardiovascular and respiratory disease. This paper aims to examine how conceptual frameworks from life course epidemiology could enhance back pain research.
Discussion: Life course concepts can be divided into three categories. Concept 1: patterns over time, risk chains and accumulation. Simple 'chains of risk' have been studied - e.g. depression leading to back pain - but studies involving more risk factors in the chain are infrequent. Also, we have not examined how risk accumulation influences outcome, e.g. whether multiple episodes or duration of depression, throughout the life course, better predicts back pain. One-year back pain trajectories have been described, and show advantages for studying back pain, but there are few descriptions of longer-term patterns with associated transitions and turning points. Concept 2: influences and determinants of pathways. Analyses in back pain studies commonly adjust associations for potential confounders, but specific analysis of factors modifying risk, or related to the resilience or susceptibility to back pain, are rarely studied. Concept 3: timing of risk. Studies of critical or sensitive periods - crucial times of life which influence health later in life - are scarce in back pain research. Such analyses could help identify factors that influence the experience of pain throughout the life course.
Summary: Back pain researchers could usefully develop hypotheses and models of how risks from different stages of life might interact and influence the onset, persistence and prognosis of back pain throughout the life course. Adoption of concepts and methods from life course epidemiology could facilitate this.