TRIAGE FOR NONSPECIFIC LOWER-BACK PAIN - SHERRI WEISER, PHD*; AND M. ROSSIGNOL, MD, MSC, FRCPC
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CLINICAL ORTHOPAEDICS AND RELATED RESEARCH Number 443, pp. 147–155 © 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Triage for Nonspecific Lower-back Pain Sherri Weiser, PhD*; and M. Rossignol, MD, MSc, FRCPC† Unremitting lower-back pain has long been a costly and per- specific lower-back pain totaled almost 15 million, making sonally devastating problem in society. Guidelines for the it the fifth highest reason for a doctor’s visit.13 Only 10% treatment of lower-back pain have provided evidence-based of these patients will have pain that persists longer than six recommendations to help identify patients who will benefit weeks. However, this minority consumes eighty percent of from specific types of treatment in an effort to reduce costs back–pain-related costs.14 and human suffering. However, there is little evidence that these guidelines are being applied in the daily practice of Evidence-based guidelines for the treatment of lower- health care providers. Practical information is required to back pain have been developed to provide a uniform al- assist health care providers in triaging patients for specific gorithm for identifying patients that will benefit from spe- treatments so that interventions can be targeted only to those cific diagnostic tests and treatments.2,3 A review of guide- who need them. In this way, iatrogenic complications and lines developed in 11 different countries concludes that unnecessary costs can be contained. This chapter provides their recommendations are quite similar.23 By targeting information on how to triage the patient with nonspecific treatment only to those patients who need it, iatrogenic lower-back pain for optimal care. The recommendations are complications and unnecessary costs can be minimized. supported by evidence-based guidelines, and when these are Although treatment guidelines are a giant step forward not available, best practice principles. Because appropriate the few investigations into the practical application of treatment varies depending on the length of time a patient is these guidelines suggest they are not being followed suffering from lower-back pain, the chapter is divided into recommendations for acute, subacute, chronic and recurrent closely.6,7,11,18 Because they offer information only if phases of lower-back pain. there is reasonable empirical evidence to endorse a par- ticular treatment or procedure, there are gaps associated Level of Evidence: Level V (expert opinion). See the Guide- with many of the recommendations, leaving them open to lines for Authors for a complete description of the levels of interpretation. For example, there are ambiguities about evidence. exactly which psychological and social factors should be assessed and when this should be done. In addition, exer- cises are recommended, but no specific suggestions are Lower-back-pain–related costs and disability remains a provided as to which ones should be used, at what inten- growing problem in western cultures, despite efforts to sity and for how long. These limitations open the door for address the problem. Although specific lower-back pain different interpretations of the guidelines and may be one that is characterized by fracture, tumor, infection, cauda reason why there is insufficient adherence to their recom- equina syndrome, or systemic disease is a more serious mendations. medical condition, nonspecific lower-back pain comprises In order to triage patients with lower-back pain success- the majority of complaints.3 In 1990, office visits for non- fully for treatment, it is necessary to delineate a consistent way of identifying patients who may be at risk for delayed From the *Departments of Orthopaedic and Environmental Health Sciences, recovery. When high quality, empirically-based evidence School of Medicine, New York University, New York, NY; and the †De- partment of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health and Mon- is not available, health care providers must rely on best treal Department of Public Health, McGill University, Montreal, Canada. practice procedures to guide treatment. We combine Each author certifies that he or she has no commercial association (eg, guideline recommendations with best-practice approaches consultancies, stock ownership, equity interest, patient/licensing arrange- ments, etc.) that might pose a conflict of interest in connection with the to provide practical information about how to triage pa- submitted article. tients with lower-back pain and obtain optimal results. Correspondence to: Sherri Weiser, PhD, Research Assistant Professor, De- partments of Orthopaedic and Environmental Health Sciences, School of What is Triage? Medicine, New York University, 63 Downing Street, New York, NY 10014. Phone: 212-255-6690; Fax: 212-255-6754; E-mail: email@example.com. Triage may be described as “sorting and allocating aid on DOI: 10.1097/01.blo.0000200244.37555.ad the basis of need for or likely benefit from medical treat- 147 Copyright © Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
Clinical Orthopaedics 148 Weiser and Rossignol and Related Research ment.”29 In the case of nonspecific lower-back pain, the The potential of iatrogenic damage exists when physi- assumption is that pain will progress according to the natu- cians prescribe unnecessary treatment and diagnostic tests. ral history of lower-back pain unless certain signs or For example, prescription medications can cause side ef- symptoms associated with poor outcome are present. If fects or become habit forming. Also, xrays or magnetic present, these signals represent the possibility of delayed resonance imaging (MRI) tests may reveal common ab- recovery or chronicity and the need for specific interven- normalities that do not alarm the physician but can be a tions. great cause of concern for the patient. Abenhaim et al1 The terms “triage” and “screening” sometimes have speculate that one reason that a specific diagnosis for been used interchangeably when referring to the identifi- lower-back pain results in chronicity is the label itself, cation of patients with acute nonspecific lower-back pain regardless of the presence or absence of a physical lesion. whose pain is likely to become chronic. However, screen- Phases of Nonspecific Lower-back Pain ing usually is defined as “the examination of a group of usually asymptomatic individuals to detect those with a Phases of nonspecific lower-back pain are defined by the high probability of having or developing a given dis- time from the onset of the current episode of pain. The ease.”35 The goal of clinical screening is to identify indi- distinct phases have predictive value in that there is a viduals who may be at risk of developing lower-back pain. relationship between the duration of pain and a patient’s Although authors of some studies indicate that certain psy- prognosis. For the outcome of “return to work” for ex- chosocial factors can identify healthy individuals at risk ample, an individual who has been out of work fewer than for nonspecific lower-back pain, the effect is small.23 Cur- 3 months has better than a 90% chance of returning. At 1 rently, there is no evidence that clinical screening for the year out of work the odds decrease substantially, and at risk of nonspecific lower-back pain is of any value. Con- two years, there is almost no chance of a patient returning currently, efforts at primary prevention that target clinical to work. Because the patient profile is different in each factors largely have been unsuccessful.31 phase, the goal of triage may vary. Therefore, each phase The goal of triage is to maximize the benefits of treat- will be discussed separately. ment and to minimize unnecessary costs and suffering We will address triage of nonspecific lower-back pain associated with undertreating or overtreating a patient with in four phases; acute, subacute, chronic, and recurrent. The nonspecific lower-back pain. There are a number of physi- acute phase refers to a patient with pain up to 4 weeks after cal, psychological, and social factors that have shown onset. The subacute phase refers to a patient with pain 4 to strong and consistent relationships with outcome. These 12 weeks after onset, and the chronic phase indicates a factors can be used to target likely candidates for delayed patient with pain for more than 3 months. Recurrent lower- recovery. In addition, there is evidence to support special- back pain may be defined as pain that recurs 3 months ized treatments for patients at risk for chronic pain.12 We after the resolution of the previous episode. This is con- will use the term “triage” to refer to the identification of sidered a distinct episode and is different from unrelenting patients who may benefit from specific treatment goals. chronic pain.32 Types of Triage Why is triage important? Three types of triage will be considered in each phase; The natural history of nonspecific lower-back pain shows medical, psychological, and physical work environment. an excellent prognosis. Eighty to ninety percent of all pa- Medical triage includes physical symptoms, pathologies tients will improve in the first 2 weeks with no treatment and function of the patient. Psychological triage includes at all. Up to 90% of patients will recover in the first month psychopathology, psychological states, and individual per- and the pain will impede fewer than 5% of patients 3 ceptions sometimes referred to as psychosocial factors. months latter. However, the small percentage of patients Triage based on the physical work environment indicates whose pain becomes chronic comprises the majority of all physical demands or conditions that the patient confronts costs and suffering related to nonspecific lower-back on the job. In all cases, the strength of evidence for triag- pain.39 Some of these problems may be eliminated by ing patients will be presented based on high quality ran- triage. domized controlled studies and systematic reviews. When Triage based on recognized medical, psychological, and no direct evidence is available, the concept of “best prac- workplace risk factors for chronicity can help to direct tice” will guide recommendations. treatment is a way that maximizes the results. In this way patients would receive only the treatment they need to Acute Phase recover. This is imperative because the consequences of The general objective of triage for the patient with lower- undertreating or overtreating a patient can be disastrous. back pain in the acute phase is to rule out conditions that Copyright © Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
Number 443 February 2006 Triage for Nonspecific Lower-back Pain 149 can affect the prognosis early on. The most important goal tional or maladaptive beliefs held by the patient by repeat- is to identify specific serious conditions, or red flags, that ing accurate and optimistic messages. One study found require urgent treatment. The reciprocal goal is to avoid a that introducing information aimed at reducing psycho- course of treatment in those patients for whom treatment is logical distress in the acute stage decreased work ab- unnecessary. sence.36 Second, individuals who have these characteris- The identification of serious urgent conditions has been tics automatically should be considered at risk and should recognized universally as an important goal in the initial be referred for psychological evaluation immediately if treatment of a patient with lower-back pain.23 Even if they they have not improved at the 4-week mark. are rare, these conditions are easy to identify in primary Authors of several studies show that these factors, when care by questioning the patient and require no special test identified in the acute phase, predict future disability. For at the initial triage. Carter et al4 classified patients in their example, Nordin et al30 found that the extent of functional guidelines for the treatment of lower-back pain in three disability expressed by the subject as measured using the categories based on initial triage (Appendix 1). The par- Oswestry Disability Index near the onset of the back pain ticular interest in this classification is not only to identify episode predicted sickness absence from work 4 weeks red flags (Category C) but also to distinguish patients with after injury. Pincus et al33 found evidence that certain nerve root pain (Category B) from those with simple me- variables such as distress and somatization assessed in the chanical pain (Category A), patients in the former group acute stage predict chronicity, however, other variables being expected to recover more slowly than the latter. The such as coping strategy showed weak or no predictive systematic search for nonorganic signs at the physical ex- value. amination will help the clinician make the distinction be- At this stage, best practice dictates an informal assess- tween categories B and C.39 ment of psychological and psychosocial risk factors. For- The recommended treatment of patients with red flags mal assessment by a psychologist or counselor or standard (Category C) is the urgent investigation of a serious pa- questionnaires can be off putting at this juncture as pa- thology such as cancer, infection, fracture, or neurologic tients are likely to assume that the physician believes that compromise from disc displacement. In the absence of red the pain is not organically based and therefore, not “real.” flag, patients with nerve root pain (Category B) will be Also, while certain factors such as distress, fear of activity, observed closely by their physician for the persistence or and negative perceptions of work and its impact on pain worsening of neurologic signs and symptoms. If deficits are progressive or severe, emergent intervention is re- have been linked repeatedly to poor outcomes at later quired. Minor neurologic signs and symptoms usually re- stages of nonspecific lower-back pain there is less evi- solve without specific intervention. dence about what psychological factors should be identi- There is strong evidence that imaging techniques fied in the acute phase of lower-back pain.40,41 A modi- should be avoided if no red flag is suspected.19,38 Special- cum of distress in the form of anxiety, fear, and anger are ized tests should be ordered only when systemic pathology normal reactions to severe pain. This should be explained is suspected or surgery is considered. The increasing so- to patients so that they are comfortable sharing their reac- phistication of imaging technology has lead to a rise in the tions to pain. Patients also may be questioned about con- number of false-positive tests. Even though these findings cerns they have about their job and returning to work. If are innocuous from a medical standpoint, they can have distress is noted, efforts should be made to emphasize the deleterious effects on patients. Erroneous beliefs about the patient’s excellent diagnosis. If the patient remains ex- seriousness of back pain are difficult to change and may tremely distressed about pain or functional limitations and lead to behaviors, such as activity restriction, that can expresses negative work attitudes despite these reassur- worsen pain. In fact, a false-positive test can worsen the ances, these issues should be reevaluated at the next visit. prognosis and represents the most frequent adverse effect At followup, if the patient has not improved at all, has of triage in the acute phase of lower-back pain.1 failed to follow recommendations, or displays extreme There is weak evidence for a formal psychological and signs of stress, an early psychological consultation should psychosocial assessment in the acute phase of nonspecific be discussed. lower-back pain. However, some authors recommend In the acute phase of lower-back pain, the clinician screening for these factors as early as two weeks after should question the patient on previous history of chronic onset of pain.34 This is because of the strong relationship lower-back pain or recurring lower-back pain. A short oc- between these factors and outcome at later stages. It seems cupational history including the job title, a description of logical to flag these warning signs as early as possible. the working environment, and working schedule is valu- The purpose of gathering such information at this stage able information to foresee potential difficulties and to is twofold. First, the physician can attempt to dispel irra- reduce delays in returning to work in the eventuality that Copyright © Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
Clinical Orthopaedics 150 Weiser and Rossignol and Related Research a patient’s absence at work would go beyond the acute Kendall outlined “yellow flags.”21 These are psycho- phase of back pain.37 logical and social factors for which there is moderate to strong evidence of an association with outcome. These are Subacute Phase the presence of a belief that back pain is harmful or po- tentially severely disabling, fear-avoidance behavior and Because the majority of patients with nonspecific lower- reduced activity levels, tendency to low mood, withdrawal back pain recover within the first 4 weeks, the subacute from social interaction, and high expectations of passive phase of nonspecific lower-back pain is a critical juncture. treatment(s) rather than a belief that active participation There is strong evidence that pain lasting more than four will help.22 Work perceptions include dissatisfaction with weeks is a risk factor for disability; the likelihood of chro- the job or workplace, work stress, and the belief that work nicity increases considerably at this time. Therefore the will exacerbate pain. There is strong evidence that these goal of triage in this phase is to prevent chronicity. This is factors are modestly related to poor occupational outcome accomplished by improving function and removing or and also should be assessed.40 modifying psychological, social, and environmental barri- In order to triage effectively, it is important to under- ers to recovery whenever possible. stand the specific beliefs and concerns that prevent recov- Even at this phase, a majority of patients will improve ery. Best practice indicates that the clinical interview is the and return to normal function with evidence-based inter- gold standard for triaging patients in this stage. A com- ventions such as injections and active physical therapy. prehensive interview conducted by a psychological expert Therefore, it particularly is important at this point to iden- is the best option. Patients often will respond well to this tify those patients with the highest risk of developing referral if it is explained to them that they can learn ways chronic pain through careful medical and psychological of coping with pain and handling the stress of nonspecific evaluation. lower-back pain by speaking with an expert in the field of The objective of medical triage in the subacute phase is psychology. to identify patients with lower-back pain whose conditions Numerous valid and reliable self-report screening ques- have not improved or have worsened after 4 weeks of the tionnaires exist to assess distress, pain beliefs and social onset of pain. Research on the prognostic value of a stag- perceptions. Most are excellent research tools and provide nant or worsening functional score after the first 4 weeks insight into the patient’s experience. Some recommend of onset of pain has shown consistent associations with a clinical cutoff scores that have been associated with chro- reduced probability of returning to work during the sub- acute phase.32 nicity such as the Oswestry Disability Questionnaire9, the Several tools have been validated for the clinical evalu- Distress and Risk Assessment Method (DRAM)28, and the ation of the functional status of patients with lower-back Acute Low Back Pain Screening Questionnaire26. How- pain.5 As an example, Appendix 2 shows the Quebec Back ever, these tools should never be used in isolation to di- Pain Disability Scale that has been used widely. Scores are agnose or to treat a patient. They provide only partial based on a total of 100 points. On average, the score information. They are best used to confirm impressions should improve by at least 10 to 20 points during the acute obtained during a clinical interview or to guide referral to phase of lower-back pain. In the subacute phase, a patient a specialist. with a score that has not improved by at least 10 points for If a referral to an expert is impractical or not acceptable a period of 4 weeks is at high risk of developing chronic to the patient, the healthcare provider can ask several key pain. The clinician should intensify the search for specific questions. In addition to assessing the risk factors men- barriers facing the patient in his or her return to work and tioned above, the information obtained can provide spe- to normal activity. Another possibility is the patient who cific target areas for treatment. Based on the work of Ken- improves slowly but steadily. In that case, the clinician can dall et al,21 Waddell and Burton40 and others, a brief series help by referring that patient to a supervised exercise pro- of questions is suggested that the physician can use to gram. determine if referral to a psychological specialist is nec- There is good evidence that psychosocial factors sub- essary (Appendix 3). stantially affect the transition from acute to chronic pain.33 A referral to a psychological professional is warranted In addition there is moderate evidence that multidisci- if the patient exhibits any of the warning signs for delayed plinary interventions addressing these factors are superior recovery. In addition, best practice dictates that several to alternative treatments at this stage.20 Therefore, a psy- other observations may indicate a poor prognosis and re- chosocial evaluation is recommended for all patients who quire specialized treatment: (1) if the patient fails to im- are not expected to regain normal function 4 weeks after prove in the expected amount of time; (2) if the patient pain onset.34 fails to comply with recommended treatment; (3) if the Copyright © Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
Number 443 February 2006 Triage for Nonspecific Lower-back Pain 151 patient believes stress is the main source of lower-back require a comprehensive psychosocial evaluation.34 There pain; and (4) if additional treatments fail. is strong evidence that disability caused by nonspecific In the subacute phase, the clinician should identify spe- lower-back pain has more relationship to complex psycho- cific barriers facing the patient in his or her return to work, social factors than clinical or physical factors.40 In addi- especially for patients who show no improvement in their tion, there is strong evidence that patients who remain functional status. The goal is to recommend a gradual disabled 3 months after pain onset have an increasingly return to work, specifying restrictions that can be managed difficult time returning to work.31 This means, that in ad- in the workplace. At that point, medical interventions dition to a through physical examination, a functional and count for less than 20% of the success for return to work; psychosocial assessment done by a professional in the workplace interventions account for the rest.27 Clinical field of psychology should be mandatory. recommendations for restrictions at work can be guided by Information obtained in the clinical interview can be using the grid shown in Appendix 4. used to triage patients into appropriate programs. Multidis- In the spirit of gradual return to the job, the restrictions ciplinary treatments are recommended. However, there is should be temporary while the functional status continues some controversy about whether patients with chronic pain to be monitored. Authors of one study showed that placing can be rehabilitated to an extent that justifies such pro- patients with nonspecific lower-back pain with heavy grams. For example, Waddell and Burton40 have claimed physical jobs on open-ended temporary restrictions did not strong evidence that treatments aimed at returning patients increase their likelihood of returning to full duty.15 There- with chronic nonspecific lower-back pain to work are in- fore, best practice indicates that a specific date for return effective. Others agree, showing moderate to strong evi- to full duty should be established at the time restrictions dence that behavioral and/or multidisciplinary treatment are recommended. for chronic pain is effective for pain and function, but the Clinicians should refrain from recommending perma- evidence is unclear for return to work.12,38 nent partial or total disability from work. It is not possible Unemployment is a large part of the cost of chronic to distinguish between physical and psychosocial environ- nonspecific lower-back pain. Therefore a poor result on mental factors at work in a clinical assessment. Further- this outcome should recommend against these programs more, the “permanent disability” label is likely to result for for patients with chronic pain. However, at least one au- those patients with chronic pain and such a label often is thor has shown a return-to-work rate for patients with difficult to overcome. chronic lower-back pain to be 71%.10 These conflicting results may be attributed to the comparison of different or Chronic Phase mixed populations of patients with chronic nonspecific The general objective of triage of the patient with chronic lower-back pain. Some authors have attempted to identify lower-back pain is to minimize delays in identifying chro- factors that predict success in multidisciplinary treatment nicity so that care can be adapted to the role of achieving programs; perceived disability, psychopathology, and mo- the best functional status while reducing suffering, health- tivation are associated with the outcome of treat- care consumption, and adverse reactions from medication. ment.8,16,17 However, there is no evidence that triaging Medical triage for identifying the patient with chronic patients along these dimensions leads to successful treat- lower-back pain starts at the first medical visit. While ment outcomes. more then 80% of initial consultations for lower-back pain It seems that there are at least two types of patients with are made for ongoing pain, less than 5% of patients have chronic nonspecific lower-back pain. Patients with chronic chronic pain. At the initial questionnaire, if the current nonspecific lower-back pain who have been poorly episode of back pain already has caused considerable re- treated, who have a job to return to, and who are motivated striction of activities for a period of more than 12 weeks, to get well must be differentiated from the patients who it should be considered chronic. Among those completely give their lives over to the pain and adopt a new identity disabled from work, the likelihood of returning to work in based on the role their pain allows them. Psychological the following year remains in the order of 50%. Patients evaluation is crucial to triage patients with chronic lower- with chronic lower-back pain should be referred without back pain. A comprehensive clinical interview includes delay to specialized multidisciplinary care because the pain history and symptoms, treatment and responses, ac- success of this type of intervention may be inversely re- tivity impairment, family, friends, workplace factors, pain lated to the duration of the disability at the time of referral. attitudes and beliefs, motivation to return to work, psy- There is good agreement among international guide- chological history, and current psychological status. At lines for the treatment of lower-back pain that all patients this stage it is important to assess the effects of mood state with nonspecific lower-back pain for more than 12 weeks on recovery. Patients may also be triaged for psychotropic Copyright © Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
Clinical Orthopaedics 152 Weiser and Rossignol and Related Research medications such as antidepressants if it is suspected that the recommendations for gradual return to work should be distress will interfere with their participation in recom- followed. mended treatments. Triage into evidence-based rehabilitation should pro- DISCUSSION ceed for those patients with chronic pain. If a patient has had evidence-based care with poor results or is not inter- Overall, triage can be a helpful tool to guide the treatment ested in working hard to regain a healthy lifestyle, the of patients with nonspecific lower-back pain. However, patient should be told that pain management is their only there are several caveats to consider. There are varying option. The likelihood of such patients benefiting from degrees of evidence that medical, psychological, and oc- multidisciplinary treatment is low. cupational risk factors can be helpful in predicting chro- Usually, patients out of work for very long periods of nicity and determining who would be likely to benefit time do not have a job to return to. Even though the pa- from specific treatment strategies (Appendix 5). For in- tient’s general attitude toward work is important in decid- stance, empirical studies show that some psychological ing treatment, there is no evidence that past work percep- factors such as negative beliefs about pain are consistently tions effect rehabilitation in individuals with chronic non- associated with poor outcomes in the subacute phase of specific lower-back pain. Therefore, it is not necessary to pain. However, aggregate data is not applicable to all in- assess risk from this standpoint. Because pain, however, is dividuals. Therefore, clinical judgment must always considered chronic when it lasts more than 3 months, some supplement the results of screening tools. Also, as most patients do have a job to return to. If this is the case, cases of nonspecific lower-back pain resolves without in- questions about work should be ascertained in the same tervention, physicians should interpret psychological fac- manner as in the subacute stage. No workplace triage is tors with caution in the early stage of injury. recommended to the primary care clinician during this Until more research is done that will add to the strength phase. of the evidence in some instances, best practice guidelines must be followed. None of the recommendations given Recurrent Back Pain here replace the good judgment of an experienced clini- Recurrent lower-back pain is defined as the repetition of cian. Patients may sometimes request treatments for which two or more episodes of disability from normal activity there is no evidence. If the physician believes that such over a period of 12 months that are separated by at least 3 treatments will do no harm and may provide psychological months of normal functioning. This definition is used to benefits to the patient, they may choose to permit them. avoid confusion with chronic lower-back pain. The goal of These types of decisions are based on clinical experience triaging recurrent lower-back pain patients is to prevent and are at the discretion of the individual physician. further recurrences. We have yet to determine the comparative value of Questioning the patient at the initial visit can identify specific treatments. There are no high-quality randomized recurrent back pain. Although no scientific evidence exists controlled studies that have assigned patients with similar on triaging based on recurrent back pain, its existence may risk factors to different types of treatment. For example, do indicate important information regarding workplace haz- patients with poor psychological prognosticators benefit ards or yellow flags that have been overlooked in previous more from psychological interventions than they do from episodes. physical ones? Do all at-risk patients require multidisci- Recurrent nonspecific lower-back pain can signal im- plinary care to improve? This information would further portant psychosocial factors that have yet to be detected. streamline medical treatment and lead to improved out- Despite the absence of scientific evidence for the useful- comes. ness of triage in these patients, it would be prudent to There still is a good deal about nonspecific lower-back proceed as if they were at risk and assess them as one pain that is not understood. It remains a complex, multi- would a patient with subacute nonspecific lower-back faceted problem and needs to be addressed as such. Treat- pain. If the patient has more than one recurrence that re- ing physicians should consider medical, psychological, sults in lost work days, a comprehensive psychosocial and workplace factors simultaneously when evaluating a evaluation including psychological and psychosocial fac- patient. Ultimately however, the physician should engage tors may be justified. Psychological treatments or mul- the cooperation of the patient as a partner in treatment. It tidisciplinary options should be considered immediately is unlikely that any type of treatment will work or have a when traditional medical care is unsuccessful. high compliance rate if the patient does not assume re- The tool proposed in Appendix 4 can help determine sponsibility for his or her own well being. specific workplace hazards that could explain the recur- It has been stated that existing guidelines for lower- rence pattern of lower-back pain. As the patient improves back pain provide important information but have not be Copyright © Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
Number 443 February 2006 Triage for Nonspecific Lower-back Pain 153 implemented as easily as it was hoped. Based on these from a multidisciplinary treatment program for chronic low back pain. Spine. 1997;22:990–1001. guidelines and best practice recommendations, we have 17. Hutten MM, Hermens HJ, Zilvold G. Differences in treatment out- attempted to present a practical and universal approach to come between subgroups of patients with chronic low back pain the care of lower-back pain. It is contended that it is pos- using lumbar dynamometry and psychological aspects. Clin Reha- sible to successfully identify patients who require specific bil. 15:479-488. 18. Jackson JL, Browning R. Impact of national low back pain guide- types of care at all phases of nonspecific lower-back pain lines on clinical practice. South Med J. 2005;98:139–143. through careful triage. Once this is achieved appropriate 19. Jarvik JG, Deyo RA. Diagnostic evaluation of low back pain with care can be provided, and we may find ourselves one step emphasis on imaging. Ann Intern Med. 2002;137:586–597. 20. Karjalainen K, Malmivaara A, van Tulder M, Roine R, Jauhiainen closer to a solution to the lower-back pain puzzle. M, Hurri H, Koes B. Multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilita- tion for subacute low back pain in working-age adults: a systematic review within the framework of the Cochrane Collaboration Back Acknowledgment Review Group. Spine. 2001;26:262–269. The authors thank Rudi Hiebert, ScM for his assistance in the 21. Kendall NA. Psychosocial approaches to the prevention of chronic pain: the low back paradigm. Baill Clin Rheum. 1999;13:545–554. preparation of this manuscript. 22. Kendall NAS, Linton SJ, Main CJ. Guide to Assessing Psychosocial Yellow Flags in Acute Low Back Pain: Risk Factors for Long Term Disability and Work Loss. 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Clinical Orthopaedics 154 Weiser and Rossignol and Related Research tation rate in diagnosing low back pain in general practice. A cri- • Nerve irritation signs such as a reduced straight-leg rais- teria-based review of the literature. Spine. 1995;20:318–327. 38. van Tulder MW, Assendelft WJ, Koes BW, Bouter LM. Spinal ing test that reproduces leg pain. radiographic findings and nonspecific low back pain. A systematic • Motor, sensory, or reflex changes that are limited to one review of observational studies. Spine. 1997;22:427–434. nerve root. 39. Waddell G. The Back Pain Revolution. Edinburgh, Scotland: Chur- chill Livingston; 2004. 40. Waddell G, Burton AK. Occupational Health Guidelines for the C. Red flags for possible serious spinal Management of Low Back Pain at Work Evidence Review. London: pathology—General characteristics: Faculty of Occupational Medicine; 2000. 41. Waddell G, McIntosh A, Hutchinson A, Feder G, Lewis M. Low • Age of onset younger than 20 or older than 55 years. Back Pain Evidence Review. London: Royal College of General • Violent trauma such as a fall from a height or a motor Practitioners; 1999. vehicle crash. • Constant, progressive, non-mechanical pain. APPENDIX 1. CATEGORIES OF PATIENTS • Night pain not relieved in supine position. WITH LOWER-BACK PAIN AT INITIAL TRIAGE • Thoracic or abdominal pain. • Previous history of carcinoma, systemic steroids, drug A. Simple back pain—General characteristics: abuse, HIV. • Unexplained weight loss, systemically unwell. • Age between 20 and 55 years. • Persistent severe restriction of lumbar flexion. • Pain restricted to lumbosacral region, buttocks, and • Widespread neurology. thighs. • Saddle anesthesia, difficulty urinating, fecal inconti- • Pain “mechanical” in nature, ie, varies in time and with nence. physical activity. • Structural deformity. • Good general health. APPENDIX 2. QUEBEC BACK PAIN DISABILITY B. Nerve root pain—General characteristics: SCALE • Unilateral leg pain worse than lower-back pain. TODAY, do you find it difficult to perform the following • Pain generally radiates to foot or toes. activities because of your back? (Circle the number cor- • Numbness or paresthesia in same distribution. responding to the level of difficulty) APPENDIX 2 Not Difficult Minimally Somewhat Fairly Very Unable at All Difficult Difficult Difficult Difficult to Do 1. Get out of bed 0 1 2 3 4 5 2. Sleep through the night 0 1 2 3 4 5 3. Turn over in bed 0 1 2 3 4 5 4. Ride in a car 0 1 2 3 4 5 6. Sit in a chair for several hours 0 1 2 3 4 5 7. Climb one flight of stairs 0 1 2 3 4 5 8. Walk a few blocks (300–400 m) 0 1 2 3 4 5 9. Walk several miles 0 1 2 3 4 5 10. Reach up to high shelves 0 1 2 3 4 5 11. Throw a ball 0 1 2 3 4 5 12. Run one block (about 100 m) 0 1 2 3 4 5 13. Take food out of the fridge 0 1 2 3 4 5 14. Make your bed 0 1 2 3 4 5 15. Put on socks (pantyhose) 0 1 2 3 4 5 16. Bend over to clean the bathtub 0 1 2 3 4 5 17. Move a chair 0 1 2 3 4 5 18. Pull or push heavy doors 0 1 2 3 4 5 19. Carry 2 bags of groceries 0 1 2 3 4 5 20. Lift and carry a heavy suitcase 0 1 2 3 4 5 Total score: (maximum 100) Reprinted with permission from Kopec JA, Esdaile JM, Abrahamowicz M, Abenhaim L, Wood-Dauphinee S, Lamping DL, Williams JI. The Quebec Back Pain Disability Scale. Measurement properties. Spine. 1995;20:341–352. Copyright © Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
Number 443 February 2006 Triage for Nonspecific Lower-back Pain 155 APPENDIX 3. PSYCHOLOGICAL TRIAGE Would you be able to work TODAY if your job re- quired any of the following activities? 1. Do you believe that you can recover from lower-back pain? 2. What activities are you avoiding because of your lower-back pain? Why? APPENDIX 5. EVIDENCE SUMMARY 3. How has your mood been since you’ve had lower-back pain? Acute Phase 4. How have your relationships with family, friends and coworkers be affected by your back pain? 1. There is strong evidence that prognosis is influenced by 5. What type of treatment(s) do you think will help you? the presence of red flags. 6. How do you feel about your job? 2. There is strong evidence that imaging techniques are 7. What effect if any, do you think your job will have on unnecessary if no red flags are present. your lower-back pain? 3. There is moderate evidence that assigning a medical 8. When do you expect to return to work? label to patients without red flags increases the risk of 9. What do you think has prevented you from getting chronicity. better? 4. There is moderate evidence that some psychosocial fac- tors predict chronicity. APPENDIX 4. BACK PAIN AND WORK ABILITY 5. There is weak evidence for conducting a formal psy- This questionnaire is about the way your back pain is chological evaluation. affecting your ability to perform various work-related 6. Best practice dictates an informal assessment of the tasks and activities. SUPPOSE, your job requires one of patient’s distress level, fear of movement, and work the activities listed below. We would like to know if you attitudes. would be able or unable to perform these activities today. 7. Best practice dictates obtaining information about job Please choose one response option for each activity (do not title, description, and schedule. skip any activities), and circle the corresponding number. Subacute Phase APPENDIX 4 1. There is strong evidence that a patient’s risk for chro- Probably Probably nicity increases at 4 weeks. Able Able Unable Unable 2. There is strong evidence that certain psychological and 1. Frequent lifting and psychosocial factors are associated with delayed recovery. carrying of light 3. There is moderate evidence that treatment should be weights (5–10 lbs) 0 1 2 3 2. Frequent pulling and multidisciplinary. pushing with moderate 4. Best practice dictates that psychological information be strength 0 1 2 3 obtained by interview. 3. Frequent lifting and carrying with heavy 5. Best practice dictates identifying occupational barriers weights (over 40 lbs) 0 1 2 3 to returning to work. 4. Frequent twisting and stretching of your back 0 1 2 3 5. Frequent squatting and Chronic Phase kneeling 0 1 2 3 6. Bending over or 1. There is strong evidence that the risk a permanent dis- stooping for long ability increases at 3 months. periods of time 0 1 2 3 7. Standing up for 2. There is strong evidence that disability is related to periods of 20–30 psychological and psychosocial factors. minutes at a time 0 1 2 3 3. There is strong evidence that treatment should be mul- 8. Standing up or walking continuously for tidisciplinary. several hours 0 1 2 3 4. Best practice dictates that motivated patients with 9. Frequently walking up chronic pain receive work rehabilitation. and down stairs 0 1 2 3 10. Sitting continuously for 5. Best practice dictates identifying occupational barriers several hours 0 1 2 3 to returning to work if the patient has a job. Total score: (maximum 30) Reprinted with permission from Kopec JA. Conceptualization, Development, and Recurrent Back Pain Evaluation of a New Self-Report Measure of Disability in People with Low Back Pain. Montreal, Canada: Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McGill Best practice indicates that the subacute protocol should be University; 1994. used. Copyright © Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
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