On the course of low back pain in general practice: a one year follow up study
- aThe Institute for Research in Extramural Medicine, bFaculty of Medicine, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
- Dr H van den Hoogen, EMGO Institute, Vrije Universiteit, Van der Boechorststraat 7, 1081 BT Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
- Accepted 18 September 1997
OBJECTIVES Knowledge on the clinical course of low back pain presented in general practice is poor. Preceding studies offer a fragmentary view only, whereas further knowledge is important to enable the assessment of the prognosis. The object of this study is to investigate the course of low back pain presented in general practice to enable the assessment of the prognosis.
METHODS A one year follow up study on the clinical course of low back pain in consecutive cases receiving usual care in general practice. During a period of two years 15 general practitioners from Amsterdam and surrounding areas included consecutive patients with both chronic and recent onset low back pain. After the initial visit, each patient was monitored for a period of 12 months. The follow up consisted of monthly postal questionnaires on the course of the low back pain and the related disability.
RESULTS A total of 443 of 605 patients identified were included in the follow up, which was fully completed by 269 patients. In general, patients with less serious low back pain participated less often or did not complete the follow up. At 12 weeks 35% and at the end of the follow up 10% of the population, respectively, still suffered from low back pain. Both the pain and the disability seemed to diminish quickly after the initial visit, and both seemed to stabilise at a lower level if the low back pain did not disappear completely. About three of four patients, whose pain disappeared before the end of the follow up, endured one or more relapses within a year. The median time to a relapse was about seven weeks, and its median duration about six weeks. Both the pain and the disability turned out to be less severe during relapses. The median time to recovery for patients whose low back pain developed more than seven weeks before the initial visit, was four weeks longer than for patients with more recently developed low back pain at the initial visit.
CONCLUSIONS The clinical course of low back pain presented in general practice, for the most patients, clearly is less favourable than expected. It takes more than just a few weeks to recover, and relapses occur within a year in most cases. Fortunately, both the pain and the disability quickly diminish, even if the low back pain does not resolve within a few weeks.