Study design: Review paper of outcome studies among primary care back pain patients.
Objectives: To determine the short-term and long-term pain and functional outcomes of patients with back pain who are seeking treatment in primary care settings.
Summary of background data: Back pain has been viewed as running either an acute or a chronic course, but most patients experience recurrent back pain. This review summarizes outcome studies in light of the episodic course of back pain.
Methods: Studies reporting pain and functional outcome data for consecutive primary care patients with back pain were reviewed.
Results: Back pain among primary care patients typically is a recurrent condition for which definitions of acute and chronic pain based on a single episode are inadequate. Because a majority of patients experience recurrences, describing only the outcome of the initial back pain episode may convey a more favorable picture of long-term outcome than warranted. For the short-term follow-up evaluation, most patients improve considerably during the first 4 weeks after seeking treatment. Sixty-six percent to 75% continue to experience at least mild back pain 1 month after seeking care. At 1 month, approximately 33% report continuing pain of at least moderate intensity, whereas 20-25% report substantial activity limitations. For the long-term follow-up (1 year or more) period, approximately 33% report intermittent or persistent pain of at least moderate intensity, one in seven continue to report back pain of severe intensity, and one in five report substantial activity limitations.
Conclusion: Results from existing studies suggest that back pain among primary care patients typically runs a recurrent course characterized by variation and change, rather than an acute, self-limiting course.