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Cover of Identifying back pain subgroups: developing and applying approaches using individual patient data collected within clinical trials

Identifying back pain subgroups: developing and applying approaches using individual patient data collected within clinical trials

Programme Grants for Applied Research, No. 4.10

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Author Information and Affiliations
Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; .


The study found no back pain subpopulations that would benefit from treatment or that such an approach to identifying patients would be cost-effective; however, new ways of identifying subpopulations were identified and a data pool was developed, from prior trials, as a resource for back pain researchers.



There is good evidence that therapist-delivered interventions have modest beneficial effects for people with low back pain (LBP). Identification of subgroups of people with LBP who may benefit from these different treatment approaches is an important research priority.

Aim and objectives:

To improve the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of LBP treatment by providing patients, their clinical advisors and health-service purchasers with better information about which participants are most likely to benefit from which treatment choices. Our objectives were to synthesise what is already known about the validity, reliability and predictive value of possible treatment moderators (patient factors that predict response to treatment) for therapist-delivered interventions; develop a repository of individual participant data from randomised controlled trials (RCTs) testing therapist-delivered interventions for LBP; determine which participant characteristics, if any, predict clinical response to different treatments for LBP; and determine which participant characteristics, if any, predict the most cost-effective treatments for LBP. Achieving these objectives required substantial methodological work, including the development and evaluation of some novel statistical approaches. This programme of work was not designed to analyse the main effect of interventions and no such interpretations should be made.


First, we reviewed the literature on treatment moderators and subgroups. We initially invited investigators of trials of therapist-delivered interventions for LBP with > 179 participants to share their data with us; some further smaller trials that were offered to us were also included. Using these trials we developed a repository of individual participant data of therapist-delivered interventions for LBP. Using this data set we sought to identify which participant characteristics, if any, predict response to different treatments (moderators) for clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness outcomes. We undertook an analysis of covariance to identify potential moderators to apply in our main analyses. Subsequently, we developed and applied three methods of subgroup identification: recursive partitioning (interaction trees and subgroup identification based on a differential effect search); adaptive risk group refinement; and an individual participant data indirect network meta-analysis (NWMA) to identify subgroups defined by multiple parameters.


We included data from 19 RCTs with 9328 participants (mean age 49 years, 57% females). Our prespecified analyses using recursive partitioning and adaptive risk group refinement performed well and allowed us to identify some subgroups. The differences in the effect size in the different subgroups were typically small and unlikely to be clinically meaningful. Increasing baseline severity on the outcome of interest was the strongest driver of subgroup identification that we identified. Additionally, we explored the application of Bayesian indirect NWMA. This method produced varying probabilities that a particular treatment choice would be most likely to be effective for a specific patient profile.


These data lack clinical effectiveness or cost-effectiveness justification for the use of baseline characteristics in the development of subgroups for back pain. The methodological developments from this work have the potential to be applied in other clinical areas. The pooled repository database will serve as a valuable resource to the LBP research community.


The National Institute for Health Research Programme Grants for Applied Research programme. This project benefited from facilities funded through Birmingham Science City Translational Medicine Clinical Research and Infrastructure Trials Platform, with support from Advantage West Midlands (AWM) and the Wolfson Foundation.


About the Series

Programme Grants for Applied Research
ISSN (Print): 2050-4322
ISSN (Electronic): 2050-4330

Article history

The research reported in this issue of the journal was funded by PGfAR as project number RP-PG-0608-10076. The contractual start date was in October 2010. The final report began editorial review in October 2014 and was accepted for publication in September 2015. As the funder, the PGfAR programme agreed the research questions and study designs in advance with the investigators. The authors have been wholly responsible for all data collection, analysis and interpretation, and for writing up their work. The PGfAR editors and production house have tried to ensure the accuracy of the authors’ report and would like to thank the reviewers for their constructive comments on the final report document. However, they do not accept liability for damages or losses arising from material published in this report.

Declared competing interests of authors

Sarah E Lamb is chairperson of the Health Technology Assessment Clinical Evaluation and Trials (HTA CET) Board. Martin Underwood is a member of the National Institute for Health Research Journals Library Editorial Group.

Last reviewed: October 2014; Accepted: September 2015.

Copyright © Queen’s Printer and Controller of HMSO 2016. This work was produced by Patel et al. under the terms of a commissioning contract issued by the Secretary of State for Health. This issue may be freely reproduced for the purposes of private research and study and extracts (or indeed, the full report) may be included in professional journals provided that suitable acknowledgement is made and the reproduction is not associated with any form of advertising. Applications for commercial reproduction should be addressed to: NIHR Journals Library, National Institute for Health Research, Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre, Alpha House, University of Southampton Science Park, Southampton SO16 7NS, UK.

Included under terms of UK Non-commercial Government License.

Bookshelf ID: NBK374222PMID: 27489926DOI: 10.3310/pgfar04100


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