oa South African Family Practice - The management of acute low back pain in adults : a guide for the primary care physician : CPD article

Volume 54, Issue 5
  • ISSN : 2078-6190
  • E-ISSN: 2078-6204



To diagnose patients with acute low back pain (LBP), a focused physical examination needs to be conducted and a detailed history obtained. The patient should then be placed into one of three broad categories, namely nonspecific LBP, pain associated with radiculopathy or spinal stenosis, or back pain potentially associated with serious organic disease. The history should include an assessment of psychosocial risk factors that predict delayed healing and progression to chronic pain. Routine imaging is not required within the first three weeks of nonspecific LBP. Imaging should be performed for patients with severe or progressive neurological deficits, or when serious underlying pathology is suspected, based on the history and the physical examination. Patients should be advised of the benign course of nonspecific LBP and that over 90% of patients recover within a few weeks. Occasionally, the pain may last for a few months. Patients should be advised to remain active and should be provided with information on effective self-care options. Usually, first-line medication options are paracetamol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. To treat severe pain, a stronger drug approach that includes opioids may be considered, but only for a short time. Other therapies to be taken into account are spinal manipulation, intensive interdisciplinary rehabilitation, exercise therapy, massage therapy, or progressive relaxation. Spinal surgery is an option in the event of progressive neurological fallout, severe persistent pain of more than three months and patient unresponsiveness to recommended treatment, or if there is acute cauda equina syndrome.

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