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Chronic Low Back Pain in Adults: Evaluation and Management

Am Fam Physician. 2024 Mar;109(3):233-244.


Chronic low back pain, defined as lumbar pain persisting for 12 weeks or more, occurs in about 13% of U.S. adults. Patients with chronic low back pain should have a history and physical examination to identify red flags that may indicate serious conditions that warrant immediate intervention or yellow flags (i.e., psychological, environmental, and social factors) that indicate risk of disability. The examination should include an evaluation for radicular symptoms. Routine imaging is not recommended but is indicated when red flags are present, there is a neuromuscular deficit, or if pain does not resolve with conservative therapy. Patients should avoid bed rest. Nonpharmacologic treatment is first-line management and may include therapies with varying evidence of support, such as counseling, exercise therapy, spinal manipulation, massage, heat, dry needling, acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and physical therapy. Pharmacologic interventions are second-line treatment. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are the initial medication of choice; duloxetine may also be beneficial. Evidence is inconclusive to recommend the use of benzodiazepines, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, corticosteroids, insomnia agents, anticonvulsants, cannabis, acetaminophen, or long-term opioids. Epidural corticosteroid injections are not recommended except for short-term symptom relief in patients with radicular pain. Most patients with chronic low back pain will not require surgery; evaluation for surgery may be considered in those with persistent functional disabilities and pain from progressive spinal stenosis, worsening spondylolisthesis, or herniated disk. Physicians should consider prevention of chronic low back pain when patients present with acute back pain. Screening tools are available to predict the progression from acute to chronic low back pain, and targeted treatment strategies are beneficial for preventing progression.



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