Individual Patient Education for low-back pain

Low-back pain is a very common condition, particularly in developed countries. It can cause a great deal of pain and lost activity.

Health professionals use patient education to help people learn about low-back pain and what to do about it, including:

- Staying active and returning to normal activities as soon as possible
- Avoiding worry
- Coping with having a sore back
- Ways to avoid strain and avoid future back injuries.

Patient education can mean a discussion with a health professional, a special class, written information such as a booklet to take home, or other formats such as a video.

This review found 24 trials testing different types of patient education for people with low-back pain. The outcomes measured included pain, function and return-to-work.

People with low-back pain who received an in-person patient education session lasting at least two hours in addition to their usual care had better outcomes than people who only received usual care. Shorter education sessions, or providing written information by itself without an in-person education session, did not seem to be effective.

People with chronic (long-term) low-back pain were less likely to benefit from patient education than people with acute (short-term) pain.

Patient education was no more effective than other interventions such as cognitive behavioural group therapy, work-site visits, x-rays, acupuncture, chiropractic, physiotherapy, massage, manual therapy, heat-wrap therapy, interferential therapy, spinal stabilisation, yoga, or Swedish back school. One study found that patient education was more effective than exercises alone for some measures of function.

Studies that compared different types of patient education did not find clear results on which type was most effective. Some studies found that written information was just as effective as in-person education.

There appeared to be no harmful effects of patient education. Although there were 24 studies included in the review, most treatments were only tested by one or two studies. More research is needed to confirm these results, and to find out which types of patient education are the most effective.

Authors' conclusions: 

For patients with acute or subacute LBP, intensive patient education seems to be effective. For patients with chronic LBP, the effectiveness of individual education is still unclear.

Read the full abstract...

While many different types of patient education are widely used, the effect of individual patient education for low-back pain (LBP) has not yet been systematically reviewed.


To determine whether individual patient education is effective in the treatment of non-specific low-back pain and which type is most effective.

Search strategy: 

A computerized literature search of MEDLINE (1966 to July 2006), EMBASE (1988 to July 2006), CINAHL (1982 to July 2006), PsycINFO (1984 to July 2006), and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (The Cochrane Library 2006, Issue 2) was performed. References cited in the identified articles were screened.

Selection criteria: 

Studies were selected if the design was a randomised controlled trial; if patients experienced LBP; if the type of intervention concerned individual patient education, and if the publication was written in English, German, or Dutch.

Data collection and analysis: 

The methodological quality was independently assessed by two review authors. Articles that met at least 50% of the quality criteria were considered high quality. Main outcome measures were pain intensity, global measure of improvement, back pain-specific functional status, return-to-work, and generic functional status. Analysis comprised a qualitative analysis. Evidence was classified as strong, moderate, limited, conflicting or no evidence.

Main results: 

Of the 24 studies included in this review, 14 (58%) were of high quality. Individual patient education was compared with no intervention in 12 studies; with non-educational interventions in 11 studies; and with other individual educational interventions in eight studies. Results showed that for patients with subacute LBP, there is strong evidence that an individual 2.5 hour oral educational session is more effective on short-term and long-term return-to-work than no intervention. Educational interventions that were less intensive were not more effective than no intervention. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that individual education for patients with (sub)acute LBP is as effective as non-educational interventions on long-term pain and global improvement and that for chronic patients, individual education is less effective for back pain-specific function when compared to more intensive interventions. Comparison of different types of individual education did not show significant differences.