We evaluated three different conservative treatment methods for acute low-back pain patients in groups following a manual therapy programme, an intensive training programme, or a general practitioner programme, the latter serving as the control group. Patients aged 19-64 years on sick leave for low-back pain with or without sciatica were included in a prospective randomised study evaluating outcomes such as impairment, pain, functional disability, socio-economic disability and satisfaction with the treatment or explanations. Evaluation by unbiased observers was performed at 1, 3 and 12 months. The three treatment groups were comparable at baseline. With regard to satisfaction, the patients in the manual therapy programme and those in the intensive training programme were more satisfied with the treatment than those in the general practitioner programme at all follow-ups. With regard to the explanations of current low-back pain episodes, the patients in the manual therapy programme were more satisfied than those in the general practitioner programme at all follow-ups. The manual therapy programme group were also more satisfied with the explanations than those in the intensive training programme at the 1-month follow-up. However, no differences were revealed between the groups with respect to outcomes on measures of impairment, pain, functional disability or socioeconomic disability. All three study groups showed rapid improvement. After 1 month a significant improvement was noted in all outcome values compared with the values on entry to the study. Within the limitations discussed in our study, it is concluded that (1) patients sick listed with acute low-back pain, with or without sciatica, will be significantly improved after 1 month regardless of conservative treatment programme; (2) they will be more satisfied with the treatment if they are referred to a manual treatment programme or a training treatment programme; (3) they will be more satisfied with the explanations of the acute low-back problem if they are referred to one of the above groups, especially the manual treatment group; (4) they will not show any other differences with respect to subjective and objective variables, either at short-term or at long-term follow-ups.