Persistent back pain and sciatica in the United States: patient characteristics

J Spinal Disord. 1996 Feb;9(1):40-58.


Low back pain is an extremely common, seriously disabling, nonfatal public health problem worldwide. The National Low Back Pain Study was a multicenter study of a large, heterogeneous group of patients who have been referred to either a neurosurgeon or an orthopedic surgeon for the evaluation and treatment of a persistent complaint of low back pain. In this paper, we characterize persistent low back pain patients and their complaints, describe the impact of persistent low back pain on the patients' functional and psychological status, report on the patients' medical characteristics, and identify treatments that are currently prescribed for these patients. Persistent low back pain is most common among people in their mid-to-late thirties and early-to-mid forties. The patients are mostly white, well educated, and generally affluent. The majority are gainfully employed, but some quit working because of pain and those who do tend to be less educated, and more likely to be involved in litigation. The average patient has had low back pain intermittently for 10 years. The pain is usually well localized but its severity varies considerably. Besides pain, most persistent low back pain patients report a variety of motor and sensory deficits. Patients also report significant functional impairment at work, at play, and at home. The typical patient does not, however, display significant psychological distress. Most patients have consulted multiple health care providers, have received a variety of treatments, and have used a variety of medications to alleviate pain; a few have been subjected to more aggressive treatment measures including surgery, intradiscal therapy, and narcotic and psychoactive drugs. None of these treatments has been effective. Physical examinations of these patients do not provide significant clues for making a definitive diagnosis. Nonspecific abnormalities such as muscle spasm, tenderness, and trigger points are quite common, but motor weakness and sensory deficits in the lower extremities, and reflex changes in the knees and ankles, are much less common. The classic combination of reflex changes, motor weakness, and sensory deficits associated with specific protruded discs are extremely rare even though one of three patients had a diagnosis of disc herniation. Diagnostic imaging studies revealed that the majority of persistent low back pain patients have spondylotic abnormalities involving root compression or lumbar instability or both, with root compression as the primary cause of the complaint. Myofascial syndrome and lumbar instability were the next most common diagnoses. After a thorough evaluation by specialists in spinal disorders, three of five persistent low back pain patients were prescribed an additional course of conservative therapy, one of five was prescribed surgery, and the rest were prescribed no treatment. Persistent low back pain patients appear to be a distinct group of low back pain patients who are different from patients who have similar nonpersistent acute symptoms and those who have the chronic pain syndrome characterized by significant behavioral and psychological co-morbidities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Back Pain / epidemiology*
  • Back Pain / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Measurement
  • Sciatica / epidemiology*
  • Sciatica / physiopathology
  • United States / epidemiology