Non-specific low back pain in primary care in the Spanish National Health Service: a prospective study on clinical outcomes and determinants of management

Francisco M Kovacs, Carmen Fernández, Antonio Cordero, Alfonso Muriel, Luis González-Luján, María Teresa Gil del Real
BMC Health Services Research 2006, 6: 57

BACKGROUND: The Spanish National Health Service is a universal and free health care system. Non-specific low back pain (LBP) is a prevalent disorder, generating large health and social costs. The objectives of this study were to describe its management in primary care, to assess patient characteristics that influence physicians' decisions, and to describe clinical outcome at 2 months.

METHODS: A cross-sectional sample of 648 patients with non-specific low back pain was recruited by 75 physicians (out of 361-20.8%) working in 40 primary care centers in 10 of the 17 administrative regions in Spain, covering 693,026 out of the 40,499,792 inhabitants. Patients were assessed on the day they were recruited, and prospectively followed-up 14 and 60 days later. The principal patient characteristics that were analyzed were: sex, duration of the episode, history of LBP, working status, severity of LBP, leg pain and disability, and results of straight leg raising test. Descriptors of management were: performance of the straight leg raising test, ordering of diagnostic procedures, prescription of drug treatment, referral to physical therapy, rehabilitation or surgery, and granting of sick leave. Regression analysis was used to analyze the relationship between patients' baseline characteristics and physicians' management decisions. Only workers were included in the models on sick leave.

RESULTS: Mean age (SD) of included patients was 46.5 (15.5) years, 367 (56.6%) were workers, and 338 (52.5%) were females. Median (25th-75th interquartile range) duration of pain when entering the study was 4 (2-10) days and only 28 patients (4.3%) had chronic low back pain. Diagnostic studies included plain radiographs in 43.1% of patients and CT or MRI scans in 18.8%. Drug medication was prescribed to 91.7% of patients, 19.1% were sent to physical therapy or rehabilitation, and 9.6% were referred to surgery. The main determinants of the clinical management were duration of the episode and, to a lesser extent, the intensity of the pain (especially leg pain), a positive straight leg raising test, and degree of disability. The main determinant of sick leave was the degree of disability, followed by the characteristics of the labor contract and the intensity of leg pain (but not low back pain). After at least 2 months of treatment, 37% of patients were still in pain and approximately 10% of patients had not improved or had worsened.

CONCLUSION: Although the use of X-Rays is high, determinants of physicians' management of LBP in primary care made clinical sense and were consistent with patterns suggested by evidence-based recommendations. However, after 2 months of treatment more than one third of patients continued to have back pain and about 10% had worsened.

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