Background: Non-specific low back pain (LBP) is often categorised as acute, subacute or chronic by focusing on the duration of the current episode. However, more than twenty years ago this concept was challenged by a recognition that LBP is often an episodic condition. This episodic nature also means that the course of LBP is not well described by an overall population mean. Therefore, studies have investigated if specific LBP trajectories could be identified which better reflect individuals' course patterns. Following a pioneering study into LBP trajectories published by Dunn et al. in 2006, a number of subsequent studies have also identified LBP trajectories and it is timely to provide an overview of their findings and discuss how insights into these trajectories may be helpful for improving our understanding of LBP and its clinical management.
Discussion: LBP trajectories in adults have been identified by data driven approaches in ten cohorts, and these have consistently demonstrated that different trajectory patterns exist. Despite some differences between studies, common trajectories have been identified across settings and countries, which have associations with a number of patient characteristics from different health domains. One study has demonstrated that in many people such trajectories are stable over several years. LBP trajectories seem to be recognisable by patients, and appealing to clinicians, and we discuss their potential usefulness as prognostic factors, effect moderators, and as a tool to support communication with patients.
Conclusions: Investigations of trajectories underpin the notion that differentiation between acute and chronic LBP is overly simplistic, and we believe it is time to shift from this paradigm to one that focuses on trajectories over time. We suggest that trajectory patterns may represent practical phenotypes of LBP that could improve the clinical dialogue with patients, and might have a potential for supporting clinical decision making, but their usefulness is still underexplored.