Wallwork SB, Braithwaite FA, O'Keeffe M, et al. The clinical course of acute, subacute and persistent low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. CMAJ. 2024 Jan 21;196(2):E29-E46. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.230542. (Systematic review)

BACKGROUND: Understanding the clinical course of low back pain is essential to informing treatment recommendations and patient stratification. Our aim was to update our previous systematic review and meta-analysis to gain a better understanding of the clinical course of acute, subacute and persistent low back pain.

METHODS: To update our 2012 systematic review and meta-analysis, we searched the Embase, MEDLINE and CINAHL databases from 2011 until January 2023, using our previous search strategy. We included prospective inception cohort studies if they reported on participants with acute (< 6 wk), subacute (6 to less than 12 wk) or persistent (12 to less than 52 wk) nonspecific low back pain at study entry. Primary outcome measures included pain and disability (0-100 scale). We assessed risk of bias of included studies using a modified tool and assessed the level of confidence in pooled estimates using the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) tool. We used a mixed model design to calculate pooled estimates (mean, 95% confidence interval [CI]) of pain and disability at 0, 6, 12, 26 and 52 weeks. We treated time in 2 ways: time since study entry (inception time uncorrected) and time since pain onset (inception time corrected). We transformed the latter by adding the mean inception time to the time of study entry.

RESULTS: We included 95 studies, with 60 separate cohorts in the systematic review (n = 17 974) and 47 cohorts (n = 9224) in the meta-analysis. Risk of bias of included studies was variable, with poor study attrition and follow-up, and most studies did not select participants as consecutive cases. For the acute pain cohort, the estimated mean pain score with inception time uncorrected was 56 (95% CI 49-62) at baseline, 26 (95% CI 21-31) at 6 weeks, 22 (95% CI 18-26) at 26 weeks and 21 (95% CI 17-25) at 52 weeks (moderate-certainty evidence). For the subacute pain cohort, the mean pain score was 63 (95% CI 55-71) at baseline, 29 (95% CI 22-37) at 6 weeks, 29 (95% CI 22-36) at 26 weeks and 31 (95% 23-39) at 52 weeks (moderate-certainty evidence). For the persistent pain cohort, the mean pain score was 56 (95% CI 37-74) at baseline, 48 (95% CI 32-64) at 6 weeks, 43 (95% CI 29-57) at 26 weeks and 40 (95% CI 27-54) at 52 weeks (very low-certainty evidence). The clinical course of disability was slightly more favourable than the clinical course of pain.

INTERPRETATION: Participants with acute and subacute low back pain had substantial improvements in levels of pain and disability within the first 6 weeks ( moderate-certainty evidence); however, participants with persistent low back pain had high levels of pain and disability with minimal improvements over time (very low-certainty evidence). Identifying and escalating care in individuals with subacute low back pain who are recovering slowly could be a focus of intervention to reduce the likelihood of transition into persistent low back pain.


Discipline Area Score
Nurse 6 / 7
Rehab Clinician (OT/PT) 6 / 7
Physician 5 / 7
Comments from MORE raters

Nurse rater

The findings were interesting, but it is not surprising that persistent back pain does not usually show much decrease in severity/rating, hence the label of persistent. Even though no interventional studies were included, it would be beneficial to know what treatments these patients were using or had been using. Also, there was significant diversity in the settings for these studies which would have an effect of the level and course of the pain.

Rehab Clinician (OT/PT) rater

The wasteful tragedy of hyper-generalisation, of continuing to describe the broad heterogeneity of a multi-factorial psychosocial influenced, multiply sourced pathoanatomical condition that presents superficially as clinically homogeneous "acute, subacute and persistent low back pain, runs the continued risk of regurgitating the same low clinical expectations with their impoverished diagnoses and management.
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