The clinical course of low back pain: a meta-analysis comparing outcomes in randomised clinical trials (RCTs) and observational studies
One article on PainSci cites Artus 2014: The Complete Guide to Low Back Pain
PainSci commentary on Artus 2014: ?This page is one of thousands in the PainScience.com bibliography. It is not a general article: it is focused on a single scientific paper, and it may provide only just enough context for the summary to make sense. Links to other papers and more general information are provided wherever possible.
Strictly speaking, this study does not show that back pain gets better with or without treatment — but that is a nearly inescapable implication. What it was really about is a fairly technical point about research: does participation in a randomized controlled trial produce different results? Do people who participate in studies do better than people who do not? Answer: nope. This exhaustive meta-analysis determined that basically everyone follows exactly the same pattern of improvement in back pain regardless of whether they are involved in an RCT.
But for this to be true, it must also be true that most treatments are mostly not affecting the progression of back pain. If some treatments worked, then some RCTs would be producing evidence of faster and better recovery. The authors here warn against trying to interpret such diverse data in this way, but it strikes me as an token caution — the findings here tend to reinforce past findings by the same authors (see Artus), namely that no treatment clearly works for back pain.
~ Paul Ingraham
original abstract †Abstracts here may not perfectly match originals, for a variety of technical and practical reasons. Some abstacts are truncated for my purposes here, if they are particularly long-winded and unhelpful. I occasionally add clarifying notes. And I make some minor corrections.
BACKGROUND: Evidence suggests that the course of low back pain (LBP) symptoms in randomised clinical trials (RCTs) follows a pattern of large improvement regardless of the type of treatment. A similar pattern was independently observed in observational studies. However, there is an assumption that the clinical course of symptoms is particularly influenced in RCTs by mere participation in the trials. To test this assumption, the aim of our study was to compare the course of LBP in RCTs and observational studies.
METHODS: Source of studies CENTRAL database for RCTs and MEDLINE, CINAHL, EMBASE and hand search of systematic reviews for cohort studies. Studies include individuals aged 18 or over, and concern non-specific LBP. Trials had to concern primary care treatments. Data were extracted on pain intensity. Meta-regression analysis was used to compare the pooled within-group change in pain in RCTs with that in cohort studies calculated as the standardised mean change (SMC).
RESULTS: 70 RCTs and 19 cohort studies were included, out of 1134 and 653 identified respectively. LBP symptoms followed a similar course in RCTs and cohort studies: a rapid improvement in the first 6 weeks followed by a smaller further improvement until 52 weeks. There was no statistically significant difference in pooled SMC between RCTs and cohort studies at any time point:- 6 weeks: RCTs: SMC 1.0 (95% CI 0.9 to 1.0) and cohorts 1.2 (0.7to 1.7); 13 weeks: RCTs 1.2 (1.1 to 1.3) and cohorts 1.0 (0.8 to 1.3); 27 weeks: RCTs 1.1 (1.0 to 1.2) and cohorts 1.2 (0.8 to 1.7); 52 weeks: RCTs 0.9 (0.8 to 1.0) and cohorts 1.1 (0.8 to 1.6).
CONCLUSIONS: The clinical course of LBP symptoms followed a pattern that was similar in RCTs and cohort observational studies. In addition to a shared 'natural history', enrolment of LBP patients in clinical studies is likely to provoke responses that reflect the nonspecific effects of seeking and receiving care, independent of the study design.
- “Low back pain symptoms show a similar pattern of improvement following a wide range of primary care treatments: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials,” Artus et al, Rheumatology (Oxford), 2010.
- “Analgesic effects of treatments for non-specific low back pain: a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomized trials,” Machado et al, Rheumatology (Oxford), 2009.
This page is part of the PainScience BIBLIOGRAPHY, which contains plain language summaries of thousands of scientific papers & others sources. It’s like a highly specialized blog. A few highlights:
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- Prediction of an extruded fragment in lumbar disc patients from clinical presentations. Pople 1994 Spine (Phila Pa 1976).
- Characteristics of patients with low back and leg pain seeking treatment in primary care: baseline results from the ATLAS cohort study. Konstantinou 2015 BMC Musculoskelet Disord.
- Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of universal school-based mindfulness training compared with normal school provision in reducing risk of mental health problems and promoting well-being in adolescence: the MYRIAD cluster randomised controlled trial. Kuyken 2022 Evid Based Ment Health.
- No long-term effects after a three-week open-label placebo treatment for chronic low back pain: a three-year follow-up of a randomized controlled trial. Kleine-Borgmann 2022 Pain.