An Epidemiological Study of Diagnostic and Therapeutic Strategies in Office Practice Patients With Subacute or Chronic Pain in the Thoracic or Low Back. Comparison of Practices in Primary Care and Rheumatology Settings

Rev Rhum Engl Ed. 1997 Jan;64(1):26-34.


There is a paucity of epidemiological data on diagnostic and therapeutic practices in office practice patients with subacute or chronic pain in the thoracic or low back.

Study objective: to describe diagnostic and therapeutic strategies used in such patients.

Patients and methods: descriptive, prospective, two-month epidemiological study in 50 general practitioners and 50 rheumatologists. Each physician was asked to provide data on the demographics, clinical features, history of spinal disease, investigations, prior treatments and treatments prescribed on D0 and D30 in two patients with low back pain and two with thoracic back pain, of one to 12 months' duration.

Results: A total of 352 patients were included. In the 217 patients with low back pain, including 107 women and 110 men, duration of the pain was 4.3 +/- 0.2 months and mean age was 49.6 +/- 1 years; 67% of these patients were economically active and 22% were retired; 59% were recruited by rheumatologists. In the thoracic back pain group, there were 135 patients, including 82 women (61%) and 53 men, with a mean duration of pain of 3.8 +/- 0.3 months and a mean age of 47.7 +/- 1.4 years; 60% were economically active and 22% were retired; 49% were recruited by rheumatologists. A history of conservatively-treated low or thoracic back pain was reported for 95.4% of patients in the low back pain group and 94% in the thoracic back pain group. Of the patients with low back pain, 6.3% had had spinal surgery. Investigations were as follows: roentgenograms in 85% of low back pain and 75% of thoracic back pain patients, computed tomography in 11% and 5.8%, magnetic resonance imaging in 2% and 1% and laboratory tests in 14% and 20%. Ninety-one per cent of low back pain and 84% of thoracic back pain patients were already under therapy on D0. Ninety-six per cent of patients overall were given a prescription at the end of the D0 visit, for a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug or an analgesic in 80% of low back pain and 63% of thoracic back pain patients, for muscle relaxants in 62% and 69%, for drugs aimed at preventing gastric side effects in 19% and 9.5%, for myotonic agents in 10% and 8% and for sedatives in 5% and 11%. A local steroid injection was given to 20% of low back pain patients. Twenty-four per cent of low back pain and 14% of thoracic back pain patients missed days of work (mean, 11 +/- 1.7 days and 13 +/- 4.6 days, respectively). Physical therapy was prescribed to 36% of low back pain and 27% of thoracic back pain patients and a lumbar support belt to 17% of low back pain patients. On D30, the pain had abated in 86% of low back pain and 89% of thoracic back pain patients and complete freedom from pain was reported by 28% and 32% of patients in these two groups, respectively. Treatments prescribed on D30 were physical therapy (43% and 31%), analgesics (40% and 36%) muscle relaxants (25% and 30%), and nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (23% and 12%). Conclusion. This preliminary study provides data on common practices in subacute and chronic low back and back pain and may prove useful for health care cost estimations.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Back Pain / diagnosis*
  • Back Pain / epidemiology
  • Back Pain / therapy*
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Chronic Disease
  • Family Practice / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Low Back Pain / diagnosis
  • Low Back Pain / epidemiology
  • Low Back Pain / therapy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Rheumatology / statistics & numerical data*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Treatment Outcome