Multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation for subacute low back pain

Low back pain (LBP) is associated with enormous personal and societal burdens, especially when it reaches the chronic stage of the disorder (pain for a duration of more than three months). Indeed, individuals who reach the chronic stage tend to show a more persistent course, and they account for the majority of social and economic costs. As a result, there is increasing emphasis on the importance of intervening at the early stages of LBP.

According to the biopsychosocial model, LBP is a condition best understood with reference to an interaction of physical, psychological, and social influences. This has led to the development of multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation (MBR) programs that target factors from the different domains, administered by healthcare professionals from different backgrounds.

This review is an update of a Cochrane Review on MBR for subacute LBP, which was published in 2003. It is part of a series of reviews on MBR for musculoskeletal pain published by the Cochrane Back and Neck Group and the Cochrane Musculoskeletal Group. The objectives were to examine the effectiveness of MBR for subacute LBP (pain for a duration of six to 12 weeks) among adults, with a focus on pain, back-specific disability, and work status.

The authors included a total of nine RCTs (981 participants) in this review. Five studies were conducted in Europe and four in North America. Sample sizes ranged from 33 to 351. The mean age across trials ranged between 32.0 and 43.7 years. All included studies were judged as having high risk of performance bias and high risk of detection bias due to lack of blinding, and four of the nine studies suffered from at least one additional source of possible bias.

In MBR compared to usual care for subacute LBP, individuals receiving MBR had less pain (four studies with 336 participants; SMD -0.46, 95% CI -0.70 to -0.21, moderate-quality of evidence due to risk of bias) and less disability (three studies with 240 participants; SMD -0.44, 95% CI -0.87 to -0.01, low-quality of evidence due to risk of bias and inconsistency), as well as increased likelihood of return-to-work (three studies with 170 participants; OR 3.19, 95% CI 1.46 to 6.98, very low-quality of evidence due to serious risk of bias and imprecision) and fewer sick leave days (two studies with 210 participants; SMD -0.38 95% CI -0.66 to -0.10, low-quality of evidence due to risk of bias and imprecision) at 12-month follow-up. The effect sizes for pain and disability were low in terms of clinical meaningfulness, whereas effects for work-related outcomes were in the moderate range.

However, when comparing MBR to other treatments (i.e. brief intervention with features from a light mobilization program and a graded activity program, functional restoration, brief clinical intervention including education and advice on exercise, and psychological counselling), we found no differences between the groups in terms of pain (two studies with 336 participants; SMD -0.14, 95% CI -0.36 to 0.07, low-quality evidence due to imprecision and risk of bias), functional disability (two studies with 345 participants; SMD -0.03, 95% CI -0.24 to 0.18, low-quality evidence due to imprecision and risk of bias), and time away from work (two studies with 158 participants; SMD -0.25 95% CI -0.98 to 0.47, very low-quality evidence due to serious imprecision, inconsistency and risk of bias). Return-to-work was not reported in any of the studies.

On average, people with subacute LBP who receive MBR will do better than if they receive usual care, but it is not clear whether they do better than people who receive some other type of treatment. However, the available research provides mainly low to very low-quality evidence, thus additional high-quality trials are needed before we can describe the value of MBP for clinical practice.