Digital Care for Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain: 10,000 Participant Longitudinal Cohort Study

J Med Internet Res. 2020 May 11;22(5):e18250. doi: 10.2196/18250.


Background: Chronic musculoskeletal pain has a vast global prevalence and economic burden. Conservative therapies are universally recommended but require patient engagement and self-management to be effective.

Objective: This study aimed to evaluate the efficacy of a 12-week digital care program (DCP) in a large population of patients with chronic knee and back pain.

Methods: A longitudinal observational study was conducted using a remote DCP available through a mobile app. Subjects participated in a 12-week multimodal DCP incorporating education, sensor-guided exercise therapy (ET), and behavioral health support with 1-on-1 remote health coaching. The primary outcome was pain measured by the visual analog scale (VAS). Secondary measures included engagement levels, program completion, program satisfaction, condition-specific pain measures, depression, anxiety, and work productivity.

Results: A total of 10,264 adults with either knee (n=3796) or low back (n=6468) pain for at least three months were included in the study. Participants experienced a 68.45% average improvement in VAS pain between baseline intake and 12 weeks. In all, 73.04% (7497/10,264) participants completed the DCP into the final month. In total, 78.60% (5893/7497) of program completers (7144/10,264, 69.60% of all participants) achieved minimally important change in pain. Furthermore, the number of ET sessions and coaching interactions were both positively associated with improvement in pain, suggesting that the amount of engagement influenced outcomes. Secondary outcomes included a 57.9% and 58.3% decrease in depression and anxiety scores, respectively, and 61.5% improvement in work productivity. Finally, 3 distinct clusters of pain response trajectories were identified, which could be predicted with a mean 76% accuracy using baseline measures.

Conclusions: These results support the efficacy and scalability of a DCP for chronic low back and knee pain in a large, diverse, real-world population. Participants demonstrated high completion and engagement rates and a significant positive relationship between engagement and pain reduction was identified, a finding that has not been previously demonstrated in a DCP. Furthermore, the large sample size allowed for the identification of distinct pain response subgroups, which may prove beneficial in predicting recovery and tailoring future interventions. This is the first longitudinal digital health study to analyze pain outcomes in a sample of this magnitude, and it supports the prospect for DCPs to serve the overwhelming number of musculoskeletal pain sufferers worldwide.

Keywords: exercise therapy; low back pain; mobile phone; musculoskeletal pain; patient engagement; telemedicine; telerehabilitation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Musculoskeletal Pain / therapy*