The natural course of low back pain: a systematic critical literature review

Chiropr Man Therap. 2012 Oct 17;20(1):33. doi: 10.1186/2045-709X-20-33.


Background: Most patients in the secondary care sector consulting for low back pain (LBP) seem to have a more or less constant course of pain during the ensuing year. Fewer patients with LBP in the primary care sector report continual pain over a one-year period. However, not much is known about the long-term course of LBP in the general population. A systematic critical literature review was undertaken in order to study the natural course of LBP over time in the general population.

Methods: A search of articles was performed in Pubmed, Cinahl and Psychinfo using the search terms 'epidemiology'; 'low back pain' or 'back pain'; 'prospective study' or 'longitudinal study'; 'follow-up', 'natural course', 'course' or 'natural history'; 'general population' or 'working population'. Inclusion criteria were that one of the objectives was to study the course of (L)BP in the adult population, that the period of follow-up was at least 3 months, and that there were three points of observation or more. The review was undertaken by two independent reviewers using three checklists relating to description of studies, quality and outcomes. The course of LBP was established in relation to those who, at baseline, were reported not to have LBP or to have LBP. Would this course be stable, fluctuating, worsening, or improving over time? A synthesis of results in relation to common patterns was presented in a table and interpreted in a narrative form.

Results: Eight articles were included. Articles were different on time span, the number of surveys, and the definition of LBP. In six of the seven relevant studies, for those with no LBP at baseline, relatively substantial stable subgroups of people who continued to be LBP free were identified. In six of the seven relevant studies, definite stable subgroups of continued LBP were noted and improvement (becoming pain free) was never reported to be a common finding.

Conclusion: The status of LBP in individuals of the general population appears to be relatively stable over time, perhaps particularly so for those without LBP at baseline.