What Have We Learned From Ten Years of Trajectory Research in Low Back Pain?
SOURCE: BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2016 (May 21); 17 (1): 220
Alice Kongsted, Peter Kent, Iben Axen,
Aron S. Downie, and Kate M. Dunn
The Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics,
BACKGROUND: Non-specific low back pain (LBP) is often categorised as acute, subacute or chronic by focusing on the duration of the current episode. However, more than twenty years ago this concept was challenged by a recognition that LBP is often an episodic condition. This episodic nature also means that the course of LBP is not well described by an overall population mean. Therefore, studies have investigated if specific LBP trajectories could be identified which better reflect individuals’ course patterns. Following a pioneering study into LBP trajectories published by Dunn et al. in 2006, a number of subsequent studies have also identified LBP trajectories and it is timely to provide an overview of their findings and discuss how insights into these trajectories may be helpful for improving our understanding of LBP and its clinical management.
DISCUSSION: LBP trajectories in adults have been identified by data driven approaches in ten cohorts, and these have consistently demonstrated that different trajectory patterns exist. Despite some differences between studies, common trajectories have been identified across settings and countries, which have associations with a number of patient characteristics from different health domains. One study has demonstrated that in many people such trajectories are stable over several years. LBP trajectories seem to be recognisable by patients, and appealing to clinicians, and we discuss their potential usefulness as prognostic factors, effect moderators, and as a tool to support communication with patients.
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CONCLUSIONS: Investigations of trajectories underpin the notion that differentiation between acute and chronic LBP is overly simplistic, and we believe it is time to shift from this paradigm to one that focuses on trajectories over time. We suggest that trajectory patterns may represent practical phenotypes of LBP that could improve the clinical dialogue with patients, and might have a potential for supporting clinical decision making, but their usefulness is still underexplored.
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Decisions about health care are traditionally based on a medical diagnosis. However, the most important focus of health care is patient outcomes and, as recently argued by Croft and colleagues, these outcomes are not only determined by disease diagnosis.  Sometimes diagnosis actually tells very little about prognosis. Croft and colleagues argue that “prognosis can now provide the framework in which clinicians and researchers organise evidence and information to support decisions about management”, and illustrate this proposition with numerous examples of prognostic factors being fundamental for clinical decisions. 
Low back pain (LBP) is a health condition in which diagnostic information usually does not tell much about probable future outcomes, as in only a minority of cases can a specific pathoanatomic diagnosis be reached.  The majority of LBP is categorised as non-specific LBP and therefore may be better understood and managed within a prognostic framework. 
Non-specific LBP is often categorised as acute, subacute or chronic focusing on the duration of the present episode.  However, more than twenty years ago it was recognised that LBP is often an episodic condition and people who have experienced LBP are likely to also have future episodes. [4, 5]
This challenged the concept of acute versus chronic LBP which implies that LBP presents either as unrelated acute episodes or as chronic continuous pain, and an additional limitation of that concept is that it does not differentiate between a recent onset episode experienced for the first time and a recent flare-up of recurrent LBP.
Similarly, this categorisation of chronic LBP includes both people with persistent severe pain and people reporting mild symptoms for more than three months.