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Open Access Research article

Divided by a lack of common language? - a qualitative study exploring the use of language by health professionals treating back pain

Karen L Barker12*, Margaret Reid3 and Catherine J Minns Lowe12

Author Affiliations

1 Physiotherapy Research Unit, BRU, University of Oxford & Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre NHS Trust, Oxford, OX3 7LD, UK

2 School of Health Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

3 Qualitative Researcher at Margaret Reid Research and Planning, Scotland, UK

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BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2009, 10:123  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-10-123

Published: 5 October 2009



The importance of using a common language when communicating to others about back pain is acknowledged in the literature. There are broadly three areas where difficulties in communication about back pain arise. Firstly, patients seeking information from health care professionals can experience difficulties understanding them and the medical literature; secondly, misunderstandings among health professionals concerning terminology can arise. Thirdly, the lack of standardised definitions for back pain terms can make comparison of research studies problematic. This study aims to explore the meanings and issues surrounding the use of existing medical terms for back pain from the perspective of health care professionals, lay people who have consulted health care practitioners for back pain and lay people who have not seen a health care professional regarding back pain.


A series of focus groups were used to explore participants' understanding. A purposive sampling approach was used to achieve a sample which included general practitioners, chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists, and lay people. Focus groups were facilitated by an independent professional qualitative researcher. They were audio taped and full transcripts of each focus group underwent line by line analysis, identifying concepts and coded. Constant comparison was used to allow each item to be checked or compared against the rest of the data


Lay participants understood the majority of the terms explored in the group differently to the health professionals. The terms, as understood by the lay participants, can be split into three broad categories. Firstly, terms which were not understood or were misconstrued and which had inadvertent negative connotations or implications. Secondly, terms which were not understood or were misconstrued, but without this leading to negative emotional responses. Thirdly, terms which were understood by lay participants as the health professionals stated they intended them to be understood.


Few of the existing medical terms were understood and accepted by lay participants in the way discussed and expected by health professionals. Misunderstandings, unintended meanings and negative emotional responses to terms were common within the study focus groups.