Medication use for low back pain in primary care

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1998 Mar 1;23(5):607-14. doi: 10.1097/00007632-199803010-00015.


Study design: A longitudinal observational study of primary care patients with low back pain.

Objectives: 1) To describe medications prescribed for back pain, 2) to identify patient characteristics associated with type of drug therapy, 3) to determine if the prescription of certain drugs is associated with better outcomes, and 4) to compare physician prescribing behavior with national guidelines.

Summary of background data: Few previous studies have focused on medication prescribing patterns for back pain in primary care.

Methods: Two-hundred nineteen patients aged 20-69 years who were making a first visit for an episode of back pain were studied. After the visit, patients completed questionnaires regarding sociodemographic characteristics, health status, back pain experience, and use of medications. Symptom severity and dysfunction were assessed by telephone 1 week after the visit.

Results: Sixty-nine percent of patients were prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, 35% muscle relaxants, 12% narcotics, and 4% acetaminophen. Twenty percent received no medications. Patients were more likely to receive medications if they had a desire for medication, pain below the knee, less than 3 weeks of pain before visit, more severe symptoms, or greater dysfunction. Patients with more severe symptoms were more likely to receive narcotics or muscle relaxants. Patients with greater dysfunction were also more likely to receive narcotics. Type of drug therapy predicted symptom severity but not dysfunction after 1 week. Controlling for other factors, those receiving medications had less severe symptoms after 1 week than patients who received no medication. Patients receiving both muscle relaxants and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs had the best outcomes. Medication use for back pain in this health maintenance organization was generally concordant with national guidelines.

Conclusions: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, often augmented by muscle relaxants, are a standard medical treatment for back pain in primary care. In this observational study, patients prescribed medications, particularly muscle relaxants, reported less severe symptoms after 1 week than those receiving no medications. However, randomized trials are needed to determine which medication or combinations of medications are most effective.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Prescriptions
  • Female
  • Guideline Adherence
  • Health Maintenance Organizations
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Low Back Pain / drug therapy*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Primary Health Care / methods*
  • Primary Health Care / standards
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal