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Exploring integrative medicine for back and neck pain - a pragmatic randomised clinical pilot trial

Tobias Sundberg16*, Max Petzold2, Per Wändell3, Anna Rydén4 and Torkel Falkenberg15

Author Affiliations

1 Unit for Studies of Integrative Health Care - Karolinska Institutet, Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, Division of Nursing, 141 83 Huddinge, Sweden

2 Nordic School of Public Health, PO Box 12133, 402 42 Göteborg, Sweden

3 Center for Family and Community Medicine - Karolinska Institutet, Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, 141 83 Huddinge, Sweden

4 Health Care Research Unit - Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Bruna Stråket 30, 413 45 Göteborg, Sweden

5 Vidar Clinic Foundation, Research Unit, 153 91 Järna, Sweden

6 Scandinavian College of Chiropractic, Research Unit, 169 57 Solna, Sweden

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2009, 9:33  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-9-33

Published: 7 September 2009



A model for integrative medicine (IM) adapted to Swedish primary care was previously developed. The aim of this study was to explore the feasibility of a pragmatic randomised clinical trial to investigate the effectiveness of the IM model versus conventional primary care in the management of patients with non-specific back/neck pain. Specific objectives included the exploration of recruitment and retention rates, patient and care characteristics, clinical differences and effect sizes between groups, selected outcome measures and power calculations to inform the basis of a full-scale trial.


Eighty patients with back/neck pain of at least two weeks duration were randomised to the two types of care. Outcome measures were standardised health related quality of life (the eight domains of SF-36) complemented by a set of exploratory "IM tailored" outcomes targeting self-rated disability, stress and well-being (0-10 scales); days in pain (0-14); and the use of analgesics and health care over the last two weeks (yes/no). Data on clinical management were derived from medical records. Outcome changes from baseline to follow-up after 16 weeks were used to explore the differences between the groups.


Seventy-five percent (80/107) of screened patients in general practice were eligible and feasible to enrol into the trial. Eighty-two percent (36/44) of the integrative and 75% (27/36) of the conventional care group completed follow-up after 16 weeks. Most patients had back/neck pain of at least three months duration. Conventional care typically comprised advice and prescription of analgesics, occasionally complemented with sick leave or a written referral to physiotherapy. IM care generally integrated seven treatment sessions from two different types of complementary therapies with conventional care over ten weeks. The study was underpowered to detect any statistically significant differences between the groups. One SF-36 domain showed a clinically relevant difference between groups that was also supported by a small distribution based effect size, i.e. vitality (-7.3 points, Cohen's d -0.34) which was in favour of IM. There was a clinical trend between groups showing that IM contributed to less use of prescription and non-prescription analgesics (-11.7 and - 9.7 percent units respectively) compared to conventional care. Exploring clinically relevant differences and the SF-36 as the basis for a main outcome measure showed that the sample sizes needed per arm to adequately power a full-scale trial depended on the target domain, i.e. ranging from 60 (vitality) to 339 (role emotion).


This pilot study investigated the implementation of IM in the primary care management of non-specific back and neck pain. Recruiting patients and implementing IM in routine clinical practice was feasible. The results warrant further exploration into different perspectives and relevant combinations of outcome measures including the use of health resources, drugs and cost-effectiveness to help understand the relevance of IM in primary care. Future research should prioritise larger scale studies considering variability, pain duration and small to moderate treatment effects.

Trial registration

Clinical trials NCT00565942