Synthesis of recommendations for the assessment and management of low back pain from recent clinical practice guidelines

Spine J. 2010 Jun;10(6):514-29. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2010.03.032.


Background context: Low back pain (LBP) is a prevalent, costly, and challenging condition to manage. Clinicians must choose among numerous assessment and management options. Several recent clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) on LBP have attempted to inform these decisions by evaluating and summarizing the best available supporting evidence. The quality and consistency of recommendations from these CPGs are currently unknown.

Purpose: To conduct a systematic review of recent CPGs and synthesize their recommendations on assessing and managing LBP for clinicians.

Study design/setting: Systematic review.

Methods: Literature search using MEDLINE, National Guidelines Clearinghouse, National Institute for Clinical Excellence, Internet search engines, and references of known articles. Only CPGs related to both assessment and management of LBP written in English were eligible; CPGs that summarized evidence from before the year 2000 were excluded. Data related to methods and recommendations for assessment and management of LBP were abstracted independently by two reviewers. Methodological quality was assessed using the Appraisal of Guidelines Research and Evaluation (AGREE) instrument by two reviewers.

Results: The search uncovered 669 citations, of which 95 were potentially relevant and 10 were included in the review; 6 discussed acute LBP, 6 chronic LBP, and 6 LBP with neurologic involvement. Methods used to develop CPGs varied, but the overall methodological quality was high as defined by AGREE scores. Recommendations for assessment of LBP emphasized the importance of ruling out potentially serious spinal pathology, specific causes of LBP, and neurologic involvement, as well as identifying risk factors for chronicity and measuring the severity of symptoms and functional limitations, through the history, physical, and neurologic examination. Recommendations for management of acute LBP emphasized patient education, with short-term use of acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or spinal manipulation therapy. For chronic LBP, the addition of back exercises, behavioral therapy, and short-term opioid analgesics was suggested. Management of LBP with neurologic involvement was similar, with additional consideration given to magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography to identify appropriate candidates willing to undergo epidural steroid injections or decompression surgery if more conservative approaches are not successful.

Conclusions: Recommendations from several recent CPGs regarding the assessment and management of LBP were similar. Clinicians who care for patients with LBP should endeavor to adopt these recommendations to improve patient care. Future CPGs may wish to invite coauthors from targeted clinician user groups, increase patient participation, update their literature searches before publication, conduct their own quality assessment of studies, and consider cost-effectiveness and other aspects in their recommendations more explicitly.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Evidence-Based Medicine / standards
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / diagnosis*
  • Low Back Pain / therapy*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic / standards*