How Can Latent Trajectories of Back Pain be Translated into Defined Subgroups?

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SOURCE:   BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2017 (Jul 3); 18 (1): 285

Alice Kongsted, PhD, Lise Hestbaek, PhD
and Peter Kent, PhD

Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics,
Campusvej 55, DK-5230,
Odense M, Denmark.

BACKGROUND:   Similar types of trajectory patterns have been identified by Latent Class Analyses (LCA) across multiple low back pain (LBP) cohorts, but these patterns are impractical to apply to new cohorts or individual patients. It would be useful to be able to identify trajectory subgroups from descriptive definitions, as a way to apply the same definitions of mutually exclusive subgroups across populations. In this study, we investigated if the course trajectories of two LBP cohorts fitted with previously suggested trajectory subgroup definitions, how distinctly different these subgroups were, and if the subgroup definitions matched with LCA-derived patterns.

METHODS:   Weekly measures of LBP intensity and frequency during 1 year were available from two clinical cohorts. We applied definitions of 16 possible trajectory subgroups to these observations and calculated the prevalence of the subgroups. The probability of belonging to each of eight LCA-derived patterns was determined within each subgroup. LBP intensity and frequency were described within subgroups and the subgroups of ‘fluctuating’ and ‘episodic’ LBP were compared on clinical characteristics.

RESULTS:   All of 1077 observed trajectories fitted with the defined subgroups. ‘Severe episodic LBP’ was the most frequent pattern in both cohorts and ‘ongoing LBP’ was almost non-existing. There was a clear relationship between the defined trajectory subgroups and LCA-derived trajectory patterns, as in most subgroups, all patients had high probabilities of belonging to only one or two of the LCA patterns. The characteristics of the six defined subgroups with minor LBP were very similar. ‘Fluctuating LBP’ subgroups were significantly more distressed, had more intense leg pain, higher levels of activity limitation, and more negative expectations about future LBP than ‘episodic LBP’ subgroups.

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CONCLUSION:   This study was the first to demonstrate that suggested definitions of LBP trajectory subgroups can be readily applied to individuals’ observed data resulting in subgroups that match well with LCA-derived trajectory patterns. We suggest that the number of trajectory subgroups can be reduced by merging some subgroups with infrequent and mild LBP. Further, we suggest that minor fluctuations in pain intensity might be conceptualised as ‘ongoing LBP’. Lastly, we found clear support for distinguishing between fluctuating and episodic LBP.

KEYWORDS:   Classification; Low back pain; Subgroups; Trajectory

From the FULL TEXT Article:


The outcome trajectories of individuals with low back pain (LBP) show diverse patterns, and data-driven analyses have demonstrated that distinct trajectory subgroups exist that not only differ in pain severity but also in their course pattern. [1–7] People with different LBP trajectories also differ on a number of other characteristics and so subgrouping LBP by course trajectories may be helpful as a way to define relatively homogenous phenotypes of ‘non-specific’ LBP. [8] Therefore, there is interest in whether these phenotypes might facilitate better prognostic estimates and more targeted treatment. [9, 10]

The data-driven subgrouping of LBP course patterns, which has been primarily conducted using Latent Class Analyses (LCA), has identified broadly similar types of trajectory patterns across multiple LBP cohorts. [8] However, different terminology has been used to describe these patterns, and the ‘latent’ patterns identified by LCA are difficult to directly compare for a number of reasons. One reason is that in LCA, people are not grouped into mutually exclusive groups but instead have a certain probability of belonging to each latent class (albeit they often have a relatively high probability of belonging to only one latent class). Furthermore, the specific trajectory patterns identified can depend on the type of data informing the analyses (e.g. categorical versus continuous variables), the frequency of data collection, and the size and composition of the study sample. [11, 12] Also, latent classes are impractical for clinical situations because the statistical parameters from the LCA model would be needed for application of the derived patterns to individual new patients.

Therefore, it would clearly be useful to be able to identify trajectory subgroups from descriptive definitions that could be easily applied to independent datasets or individual new patients as a way to apply the same definitions of mutually exclusive subgroups across populations. For example, we would need standardised definitions if we were to determine if certain trajectory patterns are more frequent in some populations than others or following particular treatments. Also, it would be very useful to operationally define specific and clearly described trajectory subgroups as a means to facilitating investigations into whether trajectory patterns are clinically useful indicators of relatively homogenous LBP phenotypes.

We participated in a collaborative group that suggested standardising definitions for labelling LCA-derived trajectory patterns in order to provide a common terminology and promote consistency within this research field. [8] These were consensus-based suggestions that captured the general features of LBP trajectory patterns that had been identified across different settings and different methods. The suggested labels described LBP trajectories in terms of pain intensity, pain variation over time, and the early change patterns after initiating care (Table 1).

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