Study design: The present is a prospective population-based cohort study.
Objectives: To determine whether psychologic distress in patients free of low back pain predicts future new episodes of such pain.
Summary of background data: An associating between symptoms of depression and anxiety and low back pain has been described in cross-sectional studies. It is unclear whether this represents cause or effect or whether it is found only in chronic pain sufferers attending specialist clinics. There is a need to investigate this prospectively in the general population.
Methods: The study population was 4501 adults aged 18-75 years who responded to a questionnaire survey mailed to all those registered with two family practices in the United Kingdom. The survey inquired about low back pain during the previous month and included the 12-item General Health Questionnaire, a validated schedule for measuring psychologic distress in the general population. New episodes of low back pain during the 12 months after the survey were identified by two methods--continuous monitoring of all primary care consulters and a second postal survey at the end of the 12-month period to determine occurrences for which consultation had not been sought.
Results: Among 1638 subjects free of current low back pain in the baseline survey, the likelihood of developing a new episode of nonconsulting low back pain was higher among those with General Health Questionnaire scores in the upper third of the range compared with the lower third (adjusted odds ratio, 1.8 [1.4, 2.4]). This could not be explained either by age and gender differences or by general physical health. The increased risk persisted when analysis was restricted to those who at baseline could not recall ever having had low back pain in the past and to those with full-time employment.
Conclusion: Symptoms of psychologic distress in individuals without back pain predict the subsequent onset of new episodes of low back pain. We calculate from these data that the proportion of new episodes of low back pain that might be attributable to such psychologic factors in the general population is 16%.