Effect of diagnostic labelling on management intentions for non-specific low back pain: A randomized scenario-based experiment

Eur J Pain. 2022 Aug;26(7):1532-1545. doi: 10.1002/ejp.1981. Epub 2022 Jun 21.


Background: Diagnostic labels may influence treatment intentions. We examined the effect of labelling low back pain (LBP) on beliefs about imaging, surgery, second opinion, seriousness, recovery, work, and physical activities.

Methods: Six-arm online randomized experiment with blinded participants with and without LBP. Participants received one of six labels: 'disc bulge', 'degeneration', 'arthritis', 'lumbar sprain', 'non-specific LBP', 'episode of back pain'. The primary outcome was the belief about the need for imaging.

Results: A total of 1375 participants (mean [SD] age, 41.7 years [18.4 years]; 748 women [54.4%]) were included. The need for imaging was rated lower with the labels 'episode of back pain' (4.2 [2.9]), 'lumbar sprain' (4.2 [2.9]) and 'non-specific LBP' (4.4 [3.0]) compared to the labels 'arthritis' (6.0 [2.9]), 'degeneration' (5.7 [3.2]) and 'disc bulge' (5.7 [3.1]). The same labels led to higher recovery expectations and lower ratings of need for a second opinion, surgery and perceived seriousness compared to 'disc bulge', 'degeneration' and 'arthritis'. Differences were larger amongst participants with current LBP who had a history of seeking care. No differences were found in beliefs about physical activity and work between the six labels.

Conclusions: 'Episode of back pain', 'lumbar sprain' and 'non-specific LBP' reduced need for imaging, surgery and second opinion compared to 'arthritis', 'degeneration' and 'disc bulge' amongst public and patients with LBP as well as reducing the perceived seriousness of LBP and enhancing recovery expectations. The impact of labels appears most relevant amongst those at risk of poor outcomes (participants with current LBP who had a history of seeking care).

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration*
  • Low Back Pain* / diagnosis
  • Low Back Pain* / therapy
  • Sprains and Strains*