Background: Acute low back pain (LBP) is primarily managed in general practice. We aimed to describe the usual care provided by general practitioners (GPs) and to compare this with recommendations of best practice in international evidence-based guidelines for the management of acute LBP.
Methods: Care provided in 3533 patient visits to GPs for a new episode of LBP was mapped to key recommendations in treatment guidelines. The proportion of patient encounters in which care arranged by a GP aligned with these key recommendations was determined for the period 2005 through 2008 and separately for the period before the release of the local guideline in 2004 (2001-2004).
Results: Although guidelines discourage the use of imaging, over one-quarter of patients were referred for imaging. Guidelines recommend that initial care should focus on advice and simple analgesics, yet only 20.5% and 17.7% of patients received these treatments, respectively. Instead, the analgesics provided were typically nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (37.4%) and opioids (19.6%). This pattern of care was the same in the periods before and after the release of the local guideline.
Conclusions: The usual care provided by GPs for LBP does not match the care endorsed in international evidence-based guidelines and may not provide the best outcomes for patients. This situation has not improved over time. The unendorsed care may contribute to the high costs of managing LBP, and some aspects of the care provided carry a higher risk of adverse effects.