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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

Chronic non-specific low back pain – sub-groups or a single mechanism?

Benedict Martin Wand1* and Neil Edward O'Connell2

Author Affiliations

1 School of Health Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Australia, 19 Mouat St, Fremantle WA 6959, Australia

2 Centre for Research in Rehabilitation, School of Health Sciences and Social Care, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, UK

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BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2008, 9:11  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-9-11

Published: 25 January 2008



Low back pain is a substantial health problem and has subsequently attracted a considerable amount of research. Clinical trials evaluating the efficacy of a variety of interventions for chronic non-specific low back pain indicate limited effectiveness for most commonly applied interventions and approaches.


Many clinicians challenge the results of clinical trials as they feel that this lack of effectiveness is at odds with their clinical experience of managing patients with back pain. A common explanation for this discrepancy is the perceived heterogeneity of patients with chronic non-specific low back pain. It is felt that the effects of treatment may be diluted by the application of a single intervention to a complex, heterogeneous group with diverse treatment needs. This argument presupposes that current treatment is effective when applied to the correct patient.

An alternative perspective is that the clinical trials are correct and current treatments have limited efficacy. Preoccupation with sub-grouping may stifle engagement with this view and it is important that the sub-grouping paradigm is closely examined. This paper argues that there are numerous problems with the sub-grouping approach and that it may not be an important reason for the disappointing results of clinical trials. We propose instead that current treatment may be ineffective because it has been misdirected. Recent evidence that demonstrates changes within the brain in chronic low back pain sufferers raises the possibility that persistent back pain may be a problem of cortical reorganisation and degeneration. This perspective offers interesting insights into the chronic low back pain experience and suggests alternative models of intervention.


The disappointing results of clinical research are commonly explained by the failure of researchers to adequately attend to sub-grouping of the chronic non-specific low back pain population. Alternatively, current approaches may be ineffective and clinicians and researchers may need to radically rethink the nature of the problem and how it should best be managed.